The UK construction industry is responsible for producing over 36 million tonnes of landfill waste every year. This is approximately 35% of total waste generated, with domestic residential waste accounting for an additional 10%. It has been estimated that UK landfill sites will be filled in as little as 6 years, making it an imperative to reduce and manage our waste. Public opinion in the UK has emphasised the difficulties of minimising construction waste, but with Germany recycling over 80% of its construction waste and Denmark over 90%, this is clearly a misperception. Fortunately the situation is changing in the UK, and there are a growing number of sustainable waste management solutions that can be used as examples of best practice.
Where Does Waste Come From?
Waste streams vary according to the phase of construction, the method and the type of building. For example, during roofing there might be insulation and roof tile waste. During plastering, painting and finishing, a lot of rubble is produced. A whole range of waste materials are produced throughout the build project including: concrete, dirt, drywall, insulation, tiles, carpet, vinyl flooring, cardboard, bricks, paint, metals, wood, and window glass. Most waste is produced on site through overordering, or damage by mishandling, inadequate storage or the weather. But unnecessary packaging of construction materials also produces an excessive amount of waste in the form of plastic and cardboard.
Waste Minimisation Strategies
Managing and monitoring the different waste streams on a construction site requires a detailed waste minimisation strategy. This needs careful planning throughout the design, build and occupancy phases, to ensure its success, effectiveness and compliance with building regulations.
There are three basic strategies for dealing with waste: reduce, reuse and recycle. Waste prevention is the ideal, and this can be addressed first by identifying possible waste streams early on in the build process, and then designing for their minimisation. Using standard sizes for building components (windows, doors etc.) can prevent future waste, as can designing for deconstruction, using recyclable components. It has been estimated that overordering accounts for 13 million tonnes of new building materials being thrown out every year. Better communication between building professionals to ensure exact calculations of required materials are made can mean that this waste is prevented. Just-in-time delivery strategies can further reduce waste created by improper storage and weather damage.
Once waste has been produced, the best method of managing it is through reuse either on the existing site, or a nearby site. Many materials can be usefully reclaimed, and even sold to offset the costs of a building project. Recycling materials is the final option for managing waste. Materials that can be reused or recycled need to be identified early on the build process, and segregated for easy storage, collection and transfer. For the strategy to be effective, links also need to be established with local recycling and reuse facilities and contractors.
Sustainable building practice goes one step further than conventional practice, by designing for waste minimisation in the operation of the building, through greywater recycling, composting toilets, on site food composting and off-site recycling facilities, thus helping to reduce residential waste.
Waste as a Valuable Resource
Effective waste management can reduce building and operating costs, enhance the reputation of the building industry, and also generate new revenue streams through developing recycling and reclaiming markets. Reducing construction waste also saves landfill space, conserves valuable natural resources, saves energy and creates less pollution by reducing transportation and manufacturing processes, with a mitigating effect on climate change.
The UK Government has introduced a landfill tax, aggregate levy and other waste management regulations that encourage the diversion of waste from landfill, promote reuse and recycle strategies, and emphasise environmental responsibility. But further measures are needed if the construction industry is to realise waste minimisation as part of its core activity. And if we really want to address our waste problems, the biggest change that needs to occur is a shift in people’s thinking, from seeing waste as not just a problem of disposal, but as a valuable resource to be treated and used with respect and care.