Nowhere has the challenging economic climate been more directly felt than in the construction sector, but it is now showing signs of positivity.
There is still some fragility, with significant fluctuations in performance month on month. In August, for example, the construction sector expanded at its fastest pace for seven months, but by October expansion had cooled off as signs of a housing market slowdown triggered a lag in building new homes.
As you would expect, the performance and pressures on construction directly affects the aggregates market, both for virgin and recycled material. The pick-up in construction has led to an increase of around 40% in the volume of recycled aggregate that Wastecycle has supplied during the past 12 months. What is perhaps more interesting than the rather obvious direct correlation between building levels and the use of material is that we are now seeing a significant increase in the proportion of recycled aggregate being used in developments.
Companies such as Kier have, for some time, actively encouraged the use of recycled aggregates as part of its commitment to sustainability. But it still has concerns associated with the quality of these aggregates, as well as their traceability. As a result, Kier requires that all recycled aggregate producers demonstrate compliance with the WRAP Aggregate Quality Protocol.
This demand for a consistent and recognised standard is something we wholeheartedly support, and all our aggregates are subject to a rigorous testing regime to ensure compliance with these standards. Unfortunately, the issue of quality and consistency is not as widely recognised as it needs to be across the sector.
Historically, there has undoubtedly been an issue with the variable quality of recycled aggregates and there continue to be challenges presented by inclement weather, for example. The restraint on uptake is as much one of perception as of reality – what is now a high-quality consistent product is, to some degree, still tarnished by the past and the actions of less scrupulous providers.
There are things we can do to address this challenge. The first and most obvious is to continue to produce good product to the defined standard. But there is also an opportunity to break the association with ‘waste’. It is not news to anyone that the waste industry is trying to reposition itself and shift the focus of its activity – quite rightly – towards resource management.
As a result, Wastecycle operates a separate business, Toton Aggregates, to sell the construction products it produces. This helps to lessen the association with waste and also enables us to talk the language of our offtake customers who, while no more or less important, talk a different language and have a different set of demands and challenges to those commercial customers whose material we recycle.
In addition to recycled aggregates being some 20-25% cheaper than the primary quarry equivalent, there are a number of other opportunities for cost savings in the use of this product. One of the biggest is the opportunity for reverse logistics. This sees the vehicles that deliver material for recycling to our facility being reloaded with the aggregates needed for use back on-site. This can in effect produce a virtually 100% closed loop supply chain.
Kier’s sustainability objectives, particularly diverting waste from landfill and encouraging reuse, provide its main driver for the use of recycled product. These are set in the context of the wider UK construction industry where, for example, low carbon and sustainable construction is a strategic priority in the Construction 2025 strategy – the joint strategy from the Government and industry.
In terms of supply, pressures to build on previously developed land means there will continue to be a good supply of input material for recycling and reuse, which should continue to provide cost saving opportunities for those using the product.
We have good reason to be optimistic for the increased uptake of recycled aggregates. While we cannot influence the UK construction market as a whole, there are things we can do to support it and make our products more attractive. We must of course ensure that they remain cost-effective but, most importantly, we must continue to build confidence by taking a product manufacturing approach and delivering a consistently high quality.
Paul Clements is commercial director at Wastecycle