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Building a real recycling rate in the UK

Robin Latchem

Think of all those column inches and airtime devoted by the media to household recycling. Far, far more than for commercial & industrial or construction waste.

And yet the waste tonnage produced by UK households is similar to the former and around half that of the latter (once quarrying and suchlike are excluded).

So why is the media so unconcerned? One reason may be an argument that their readers and viewers are all householders so there is greater relevance. But they are also all consumers and they all live in buildings of some sort, so the construction sector deserves more attention.

Construction waste is a chal­lenge. The industry may be able to claim around 90% diversion from landfill but it is a claim built on sand (pun intended). For a start, there is a huge element of energy recovery in that figure and pre­cious little attempt to observe the waste hierarchy in terms of reuse or waste reduction.

As an example, the predeces­sor of UK Research and Inno­vation estimated that 13% of products delivered to con­struction sites were sent directly to landfill without having being used. And, in an indus­try comprising thousands of sub-contractors and suppliers, just how sure can we be that ‘diverted-from-landfill’ is accurate?

There are, however, some notable early adopters of more sustainable construction, and they should be doubly praised for their efforts in an industry where margins are very low and tend to drive conservative and risk-averse approaches to innovation.

As with many sector-wide developments, policy-makers have a key role. In construc­tion, this should be straightfor­ward because the Government itself procures more than 40% of the industry’s output, and has a pipeline of £650bn of national infrastructure pro­jects to 2025.

It is backing UK Research and Innovation with £170m – with £250m from industry – to develop a Transforming Construction strategy. Most importantly, it is the Treasury which is pushing the strategy.

The over-arching goals are to deliver buildings 50% faster and 33% cheaper while halv­ing the lifetime carbon emis­sions and eliminating the productivity gap between the sector and the rest of the econ­omy.

Digital-based solutions are key to this, based on collaboration and shared data, and that should have important ramifications for the waste element.

Robust data, with common standards and distributed throughout the complex struc­ture of commissioners, main contractors and sub-contrac­tors that makes up the modern construction industry, will help all parties to do the right thing in terms of reducing waste and dealing with unavoidable waste. And that should offer huge opportuni­ties to our sector.

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