5 things stopping construction waste from being reused

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The majority of construction waste could theoretically be used over and over again as a material in new projects. Take the example of the new development in Copenhagen, Resource Rows, which uses recycled bricks to form the entire facade of the building. It appears obvious that construction should embrace this practice across the board. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be that simple. Here’s some of the reasons why it doesn’t happen as much as it should.

The way we do construction

Very simply, the fact that we still do on-site construction. Materials are normally delivered on-site and assembled in-situ, leading to greater potential for materials to be wasted. Errors made in a challenging environment and materials left exposed to the elements can cause good materials to directly become waste. Furthermore, time is everything on a project; to run out of materials on a project is a disaster for profit margins. Much better to cost-in a slight over-ordering of materials to ensure the project is completed on time. This is particularly true for materials that come in standardised sizes regardless of the type of project: think plasterboard and the resulting gypsum waste.

The quality of pre-fabrication following WWII gave this construction method a bad name in the UK, hence the industry’s use of the term off-site construction. Uptake of off-site construction is definitely growing, particularly the prefabrication of fit-out components, but it is yet to be as mainstream as in our Scandinavian and Germanic neighbours. It is simply a more efficient way of assembling a structure: a repeated process in a stable environment enables lean manufacturing processes to be implemented and waste significantly reduced.

The materials we use

The materials we use and the way we combine them causes no end of issue when it comes to deconstruction. It is incredibly important that both the buildings we create and the components within them are designed for deconstruction and disassembly. There are a few different ways this could be achieved:

Knowing what the waste actually is

Waste segregation on site is essential for driving re-use opportunities. Throwing everything in the same skip is far less common on site than it once was (often forced by space limitations) but taking accountability for segregating waste at source reduces the likelihood of contamination further down the waste chain.

The European Waste Catalogue (EWC) is in need of reform. Simply put, it’s too vague. Disparate and varied waste streams end up being recorded against the same EWC Codes, making it more difficult to communicate to 3rd parties what a waste actually is and therefore how it could be used as a material. From a technology provider point of view, this is particularly troublesome as it means that we will have to find mechanisms to harmonise different ways of referring to the same waste, in order to suggest potential opportunities for reuse.

Knowing where to send it

In short, the devolved environment agencies of the UK need to up their game here. EA resources are hard to use, and vary significantly between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This is best demonstrated by the rise of various tech firms, who’s key value proposition is making environment agency data clean and useful. Surely the impressive usability improvements made by the .gov.uk digital team should be available to environment agencies too?

To drive proper re-use as a material, waste needs to be sent to persons, businesses and projects that have a direct need for it. There is a wider range of online “re-use marketplaces” out there such as Claire. However, to be frank, they come and go because for all the best will in the world they have historically been silo’ed non-integrated platforms that required business employees to manually upload every single waste that could be re-used. This is not scalable, and inherently misunderstands the difference between business and individual motivations. Ebay works because it is Business or Customer To Customer (B2B or B2C). It does not work for B2B, and variations of this concept will continue to fail.

Building on the above, caution and wariness around environmental permitting and exceptions for material re-use projects slows down innovation. A more flexible framework is needed.

It’s just easier: get it out of sight, out of mind

The rise of the waste brokers, who sort out the compliance headache and get the waste taken away is quite simply easier. It gets the job done, but it reduces space for innovation. Waste brokers have also been astute with their use of tech, centralising documentation and further embedding themselves within construction firms. Is a well meaning re-use project worth the risk of legal non-compliance and potentially your job?

Although there isn’t one clear answer to this issue, it is important that the industry comes together and takes an active role in producing solutions. The current rate of material consumption against waste production cannot continue for a sustained period of time. What actions can you take to become a pioneer in waste reuse for the future of the industry and the environment?

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James Farrell

James Farrell

James is the Product Owner at Qualis Flow. With an academic background in physical geography and vast experience in environmentally focused organisations as well as SaaS businesses, James is motivated by creating innovative products that drive a sustainable world.

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