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Innovation report

The building and construction industry uses only a small percentage of plastics less than 1% by weight but it is the second largest plastics user after the packaging sector. A new Waste Watch report, Plastics in the UK Economy, gives a detailed insight into the 0.8 million tonnes of plastics used in the construction industry each year, which is predicted to increase tenfold by 2010.

According to the report, which is funded by the Biffaward scheme, plastics form a wide variety of applications, the vast majority of which have an intended life of many decades. For example, more than 60% of PVC applications have a lifetime in excess of 40 years. In fact, PVC is by far the most commonly used plastic, accounting for 500,000 tonnes during 2000, followed by HDPE, which accounts for a further 105,000 tonnes.

Addressing the practicalities of recycling, the study states that at the moment most plastics waste from the UK building and construction sector is currently landfilled with only a small amount recycled. However, Landfill Tax should see the landfilling of construction waste becoming less and less economically viable.

The problem is that there is currently no legislation directly relating to the recycling of plastics from the building and construction sector, despite the four distinct sources of waste generated from packaging: off-cuts, unused or damaged material, parts that have been replaced and whole building components.

Worryingly, the report states: There is little evidence of businesses attempting to recover plastic materials during either construction or demolition. The complex nature of many construction projects, often involving a wide variety of subcontractors, responsibilities and changing locations, presents logistical and cultural challenges. There could be said to be a culture of disposal where waste is just dumped in a skip and moved off-site. Furthermore, many smaller construction firms are said to be unaware of their environmental responsibilities. Research commissioned by the Environment Agency showed that 74% of smaller construction businesses surveyed did not believe that they carried out activities that could harm the environment.

This has not been helped by what the study identifies as a lack of guidance and collection infrastructure. It states: Limited guidance relating to the recovery and disposal of plastics from the building and construction sector, coupled with the lack of adequate collection infrastructure, creates a major barrier to recycling. However, some guidance is available. The Waste Minimisation and Recycling Consortium Design Manual published by the Construction Industry Research and Information Association addresses topics such as waste minimisation through the reduction of resource consumption, reduction of waste generation at construction and demolition sites, and improvement of materials reclamation.

Already hindering recovery to some extent is the estimated 100,000 tonnes of PVC and significant quantities of HDPE buried below ground, which is unlikely to be removed for disposal as the cost would outweigh any perceived benefit. In fact, a further 25,000 tonnes of PVC is contained within building structures and unlikely to be removed unless the property is demolished. Despite this, the report says that there is 575,000 tonnes of potentially recoverable material within the sector.

In terms of end-use markets, the construction sector offers excellent opportunities for recycled products whether they be aggregates, glass, metals or plastic a fact that the Waste and Resources Action Programme is increasingly seeking to promote. HDPE drainage pipe, window profiles, acoustic shielding, pathway systems, hollow core floor slabs, geomembranes and insulation material are a range of products that contain recycled plastics and the report says that there is also the potential for closed-loop recycling within this industry.

The report makes a number of recommendations and priorities for action to maximise the potential of thi

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