3 Takeaways from the Routemap to Zero Avoidable Waste in Construction.

Consider this: “Waste is design gone wrong.” 

Let’s start with some simple facts, waste costs the construction industry an estimated £11billion per year and emits 3.5 million tonnes of CO2, that’s a serious problem from an economic and carbon perspective and one that warrants the attention of all.  

Given the past 18 months of the pandemic, climate crisis, and national and global commitments to reduce carbon and reach net zero, the timing for the recently released “Routemap to Zero Avoidable Waste (ZAW) in Construction” is ideal. The guidance was produced by The Green Construction Board and Construction Leadership Council as an interactive document split into 6 key “themes” that comprise 17 “aims”. Each Aim is defined by the 2020s, 2030s, and 2040s as well as some “act now” advice for key stakeholders and key guidance document links. Not only does the document have a clean and simple user experience it also contains a wealth of information in a concise and clear format.  

 

Let’s look at 3 key takeaways: 

  1. Material recoverability 

Focusing on the materials theme and the aim of ensuring materials are readily recoverable, I was particularly enthused to read the suggestion that ‘design teams should avoid specifying materials and products with unknown recovery routes’. Not only would this encourage manufacturers to move towards a more standardised way of recording more information on the end of life of their products, but I suspect it will also encourage more locally sourced and supplied products. As more and more information on new materials is made available (publicly) and shared, those problem materials can be compiled on a “hit list” so designers and contractors know what to avoid. 

As the industry undergoes its digital transformation this information can be integrated with BIM models and used to validate that design specifications are met during the construction phase, ensuring that materials that can’t easily be recovered are not used and can be phased out. This detailed digital documentation will contribute to the widespread availability of digital information on construction assets, giving easy access to material and component data, facilitating reuse and recycling to deliver a more circular economy. 

 

2. Soil is a resource, not a waste! 

With over 40% of the industry’s waste comprising of soil imagine the impact that simply utilising soil as the resource, it is, rather than sending it off to landfills, could have. We know with rising sea levels and decreased arable land that soil is a valuable resource so why are we not doing more with it? Partly this is down to poor design and planning, infrastructure sites must be utilising cut and fill assessments to limit the amount of virgin fill that is brought in, this requires comprehensive ground investigations to ensure the material type is suitable and if it isn’t how it can be supported/ mixed? 

Partly this is also a space constraint; on building sites space is always at a premium, so having adequate space to store soils whilst they are either treated or stored is often a problem. However, with creative planning and design, there is usually a solution. I think the suggestion around local authority or regional storage facilities is a great one that could benefit the construction industry and local community alike. To sweeten the deal increasing landfill tax and providing bonus points for sustainability certification schemes like CEEQUAL and BREEAM will also help. From my experience, there is also a lack of strategic thinking within the local area: How can soils be used in the local borough? And what other works are going on across the borough that could benefit from this resource? Another opportunity that is often missed is for final landscaping. 

 

3. The true cost of waste 

Under the “better measurement, better management” theme the guidance explores three key aims, analysing and reporting on waste to landfill, reporting at a project and company level and the strategic understanding of material flows. As a favourite quote of mine from Peter Drucker, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure”, without standardised and accurate data we cannot begin to tackle this problem. I’ve worked in the industry for over 7 years now and I am concerned to say the quality of waste documentation has not improved.  

Until we begin to tackle these problems, we will never know the true cost of waste. As we begin to measure this, will that cost include the countless hours spent checking and reporting on waste data that are often illegible and incorrect? Will that cost take into account the environmental and ecological cost of our poor practices?  

We desperately need standardised and consistent reporting that contractors can use to track their performance against. Until that point, how will we know who and what activities are generating the most waste and how to target them?  

To tackle this problem, we need the supply chain to get digital and improve the accuracy and compliance of their reporting. Only this week we saw the Environment Agency issued a warning around the amount of plastic waste being found overseas after being disposed of illegally, if convicted these companies could face a 2-year jail sentence, this may seem extreme but how many construction companies can confidently say they are 100% sure where all their waste is ending up, not many I would guess, as to do that level of due diligence would take an army of compliance auditors. 

Qflow helped to reduce the number of waste on-site for Bouygues. Click here to read more.

 

Final thoughts: 

I return to my initial statement that ‘Waste is design gone wrong”. We have a responsibility in this industry, not just to consider the whole impact of our work, but also to maintain that accountability at every level of a project and asset’s life. Designers and planners must consider how the waste will be managed and repurposed, and contractors and operators must work hard to deliver effective management and reuse processes. Only then will we begin to see the change we desire. In summary: 

  1. Waste presents a huge opportunity for the industry to save cost and carbon!  
  2. We must begin to treat waste as a valuable resource.  
  3. In order to do so, we must improve our tracking and measurement of waste to better quantify its true value and identify opportunities to repurpose it, both during construction and at the ‘end of life’. 

What can you do differently? 

What is holding you back today?  

If you are interested to understand more on the topic or explore the solution Qflow offers, please feel free to reach out. Additionally, you can hear directly from one of our clients in the interview with Serena Ward of Costain here, from the success of this pilot we have gone on to work with Serena and the team on the HS2 Main Works Contract. 

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Polly Gourlay

Polly Gourlay

Sustainable construction is within reach

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