Let’s talk about waste< Back to Blog

It’s fairly obvious that the construction industry can and does produce a large amount of waste but how much do you really know about this important subject and what can be done to improve the situation?

Here’s a quick fact file:

  • According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), construction is responsible for 60% of all materials used, 33% of waste and 45% of all CO2 emissions in the UK.
  • Government statistics estimate that, in 2016, the UK generated 66.2 million tonnes of non-hazardous Construction and Demolition (C&D) waste.
  • Multiple products are commonly wasted during construction processes, including: concrete bricks, tiles and ceramics, insulation, wood, glass, plastic, bituminous mixtures, cement, gypsum, paints, varnishes, soil, stones, coal, tar, cables, pipes, adhesives and sealants!

While these statistics are (and rightly should be) ringing alarm bells, the good news is that the construction industry seems to be taking the need to combat waste seriously and has already come a long way in that fight. In fact, 60.2 million out of the 66.2 million tonnes of C&D waste generated in 2016 was recovered. That’s 91%, well exceeding the minimum target of 70%, which the UK must meet by 2020.

OK, before we all get carried away with a round of ‘back patting’, we must remember that a large amount of construction waste still winds up in landfill and the industry also needs to do more to help the UK reduce emissions in line with its climate change targets.

What more can be done?

First of all, let’s consider what may have led to the improvements which have already been made in construction. One factor is likely to have been a 2008 piece of legislation which made Site Waste Management Plans (SWMPs) compulsory on all construction projects costing over £30,000.

Introducing SWMPs meant contractors had to document the volume of waste created on their site and keep records of how it is disposed, recycled or reused. It would seem the measures achieved what their intention was, namely influencing the industry to think differently about waste and make positive changes. However, in a move to eliminate red tape, the government has since made SWMPs no longer compulsory for every project.

Despite that, the use of SWMPs have become common practice for many contractors – perhaps because they’ve seen that, while helping to care for the environment, better waste management also saves money!

In our everyday lives, we hear the phrase ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ all the time but for construction companies looking to create effective and economically efficient waste management strategies, there’s another way of looking at it: ‘Eliminate, Minimise, Reuse and Sort’. Here are some examples of how this can work:

  • Eliminate – For instance, using steel formwork systems which offer the advantage of being capable of being reused elsewhere (unlike timber which, once used, is classed as waste).
  • Minimise – This could involve sourcing products that are composed of recycled materials or which come with zero/reduced packaging. Another strategy would be to address any bad practices such as over-ordering or inaccurate estimating so that surpluses are minimised.
  • Reuse – Construction companies might look again at what they do with products/ materials which are left over but which remain in a suitable condition, for instance asking whether they can be reused or exchanged for other items that can be used on the project?
  • Sort – Not everything can be eliminated, minimised or reused, so for any waste that’s left, it’s important that it’s properly sorted/ categorised so that appropriate waste contractors can be deployed and that anything hazardous is managed properly.

A glimpse of the future

With the construction industry advancing at a fast pace, the question many are asking is what kind of policies, processes and practices will we see around waste and sustainability in the not too distant future?

Technology will undoubtedly play an even bigger part than it does today – perhaps helping to evaluate design decisions, monitor processes on site and track the results of decisions on sustainability and cost. New materials or new ways of using them will probably also emerge to help ensure buildings are more eco-friendly.

And, it’s anticipated that waste will become something that’s given greater consideration at the early design stage of any construction project (the point where improvements can be more easily specified) and that the industry will need to collaborate more so as to learn from each other and develop innovative solutions.

What do you think?


Main image source: Freepik