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The construction waste challenge for resource efficiency

The construction industry in Scotland sends four million tonnes of waste to landfill every year. How can we start to change old habits…?

construction building site scaffolding

Building a resource efficient construction industry is one of our biggest challenges in Scotland. Around 44 per cent of Scotland’s waste comes from construction. No other industry sends as much waste to landfill. Building one house in Scotland produces a weight-busting 11 tonnes of waste. That’s almost the equivalent of 11 hatchback cars.

Other industries – such as manufacturing, healthcare and technology – have evolved over the years. They’ve embraced technological advances, and refined their processes and the materials they work with in ways that would be unrecognisable to a worker in the same industry 50 years ago. The construction industry has not changed nearly so much in comparison. There are therefore huge opportunities for resource efficiency in construction.

In an ideal world, all buildings would be conceived with sustainability in mind. The avoidance of waste would be an inherent part of the design and build process. “The early design and procurement stages are where the biggest change can happen,” says Nick Ribbons, project manager at Zero Waste Scotland who has been working with construction waste for the past four years.

“This involves architects considering designs that use resources efficiently, and giving thought to materials that can be reused or recycled at the end of their life. Sustainability also needs attention from planners who are giving permission for building development, the builders who are procuring the building materials, their contractors, the clients (or end-user) and so on throughout the delivery chain of a building.”

This provides a clue as to the problems inherent in reducing waste in the construction industry – there are many different players involved, often working distinctly. The architects, the designers of products and materials used in a building, the planners approving the building, the person who commissions the building, the builder, the engineers and all the sub-contractors.

“It’s a really fragmented industry. Projects that do well, and are held up as change leaders, have the whole team involved right from start to finish,” says Ribbons. “That means everyone – construction contractors, clients, designers, mechanical engineers, architects – inputs every step of the way. When a change is made everyone has to approve.”

So a more integrated approach to designing and building could help. In addition, business modelling consistently shows that it’s more efficient to construct buildings in a controlled environment off-site. Building on-site then becomes more a process of assembly of the pieces. This saves labour time and reduces waste. This type of building is gaining in popularity but there’s a lack of facilities in Scotland, and the rest of the UK, where this can be done on a large scale. And if you could construct, say, 1,000 units off-site, there are logistical challenges for transporting them all to the build location.

Such problems are not insurmountable but the construction industry could do more around research and development. There’s a lack of incentive to change and so change is not tackled. The changes that are happening tend to be client driven. Major clients, including government and industry, can try to impact construction processes through strict procurement requirements.

“We’ve produced a procurement guide to help stimulate change by framing and embedding the requirements for a sustainable, resource efficient approach to building, construction and design,” says Ribbons. “It helps create accountability for sustainability in the contract. This isn’t always the case.”

The guide suggests suitable wording for invitations to tender and tender response. This includes a commitment to recycling a certain amount, and demonstrating that options for reuse have been considered. If stipulations are made in the contract, then it’s possible to go back and check if the contractor has done what they said they would.

On-site behaviour is somewhat easier to change; to encourage greater segregation of materials, better handling of materials to prevent damage and waste, and improved storage so that re-useable materials don't end up in skips. In the demolition sector re-use and recycling of certain materials such as copper has been widespread for decades.  This is because of it can be extracted without losing much value – the same cannot be said with other materials.  Understanding how materials can be retrieved from buildings in a high value state is key which may mean using less bonded or composite materials.

“The construction industry is facing multiple challenges as we move further into the 21st century,” says Ribbons. “We need to continue working to find solutions that will effect wholesale change and see the industry thrive in the low carbon, resource-constrained world of the future.”

Support for your construction project

You can find tools and resources for the construction sector online including guidance on how to design out waste. Give us a call on 0808 808 2268 or email us.

We can support you through every stage of the construction process, providing free on-site evaluations to cut your construction waste cost, offer support to construct a business case and help your business to access Government funding.

Our support to reduce your business costs is funded by the Scottish Government and by the European Regional Development Fund through the £73 million Resource Efficiency Circular Economy Accelerator Programme.


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