The construction industry has long been focused on meeting the sustainability needs of its clients. But recycling has often been overshadowed by new technologies and novel attempts to produce low-carbon buildings.
Now an initiative from one of the country’s largest contractors is showing how effective recycling and good waste management can make a massive difference.
As part of its 2020 sustainability vision, Balfour Beatty is looking at ways to improve its waste management and recycling. Balfour Beatty Utility Services, working with supply chain partners V10 Polymers and Centriforce, has formed a closed loop recycling scheme for its waste plastic, in which up to 200 tonnes of plastic will be recycled each year.
“Our understanding is that this is a first within the industry; we haven’t been able to find anyone else doing it,” says Balfour Beatty UtilityServices general manager environment and sustainability Andrew Edlin.
Waste plastic from the utility works business is collected from across the UK and recycled into cable protection covers used by Balfour Beatty to protect electric cables and gas mains.
Since the scheme began in 2012, more than 46 sites stretching from Stirling to Sheerness have begun regular collections – with a target to reach up to 100 sites.
The closed loop system means Balfour Beatty is in complete control of its plastic waste stream, and the waste plastic is turned into a usable product that is in demand at thecompany.
“Waste plastic from our utility works is taken to regional depots and stored in skips provided by V10, who then collect the plastic when the skips are full. They tell us how much they’ve taken, process it and send it on to Centriforce, which manufactures a product called Stokbord,” says Edlin.
Stokbord is a brightly coloured cable protection cover used to prevent workers hitting high-voltage cables and high-pressured gas mains.
The idea came about following an investigation by Balfour Beatty’s materials and equipment buying team into how plastic waste from thebusiness could be recycled into usable products, while eliminating disposal costs and creating revenue.
The project was led by Jade Lawton, a buyer for Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions.
“Our research quickly established that there were very few UK companies with the capabilities we required. But plastic waste reprocessor V10 Polymers was undertaking plastic waste collections from some of our sites and Centriforce wasalready a major supplier of cable protection covers for BBUSL,” says Lawton.
The idea was spearheaded by plastic-recycling expert Centriforce, which worked with Balfour Beatty to develop the system.
“We arranged an innovation day with Balfour Beatty; they came here and had a good look around our factory,” says Centriforce managing director Simon Carroll.
“As a result, we have a win-win solution with a scheme that is progressing well.”
One of the biggest benefits for Balfour Beatty is that Centriforce is able to use all of the utility division’s waste plastic, not just the high quality cut-offs.
“We were presented with a number of different ideas from people we work with, from ‘we can landfill it all for you quite cheaply’ to the solution we came up with,” explains Edlin. “One of the challenges that did make this difficult was the quality of the plastic.
“We had some people saying: ‘If you can give us all of your gas pipe cut-offs, that’s great, but we don’t want any of your barriers because it’s very difficult to turn that into something other than bin liners.’
“That was Centriforce’s big push; they came to us with ideas about how to use it all,” he says.
The companies estimate that between 150 and 200 tonnes of waste plastic will be collected annually and turned into a range of products for Balfour Beatty.
According to statistics from the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme, this amounts to a total carbon saving of between 2,000 and 2,500 tonnes throughout the process of manufacturing new products, landfill avoidance and reduced need for virgin raw materials.
“It treats the waste as more of an asset than a waste, something we can use rather than something to dispose of,” says Edlin.
But this is by no means the only benefit of the system.
“From a sustainability perspective, there are a huge range of benefits over and above the environmental ones,” says Edlin.
“Aside from the carbon reduction, transport is being reduced, there is an economic benefit as the system is cost-neutral at best, and we’re hoping to save money once it has been up and running for longer.”
“Socially, because we’re using fewer vehicles, the roads are safer and air quality is better. We’re also working very collaboratively with our supply chain.”
V10 Polymers and Centriforce clearly benefit as well.
“There is a clear financial benefit for Balfour Beatty, there is something in it for V10 Polymers in terms of what they can extract from the waste plastic and for us there is value in the fact we have a supply of materials coming to our factory,” says Carroll.
“Getting good feed stock is one ofthe hardest parts of our business, because a lot of material tends to go out of the country; in the vast majority of cases it gets exported and this way we are keeping it in the UK,” he says.
The clear financial benefits of the closed loop system make it more likely to be successful as a sustainability measure.
For Centriforce, it is a concept it can take to other large businesses that are keen to work on their sustainability credentials.
“There is a genuine desire from large companies such as Balfour Beatty to do the right thing as well as financially benefiting,” says Carroll.
Systems such as this are just the kind of initiatives that are encouraged by the Balfour Beatty 2020 sustainability vision and take the long-term approach that will ensure the sustainability of businesses and the built environment into the future.
Edlin says: “The more we can stop thinking about waste as waste and start thinking about how we can use it assomething better, the better that is for the construction industry as a whole.”
A version of this article first appeared in MRW’s sister title Construction News.