Addressing our plastic problem

Last month’s report from Government-funded research group, Energy Systems Catapult (ESC), should serve as a wake-up call for UK business and industry. The ambition to go carbon-neutral by 2050 is, as the document concedes, achievable, but only if we act dynamically and radically, writes Charlie Ayers, Managing Director & Founder at SureCav.

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Charlie Ayers

Managing Director & Founder at SureCav

While the report focuses predominantly on energy, transport and agriculture, it’s important that we do not overlook the significant carbon impact of our built environment and ways in which we can make construction as sustainable as possible.

As readers will no doubt be aware, the 2050 targets present huge ramifications for all involved in the sector, from architects and specifiers to engineers and building product manufacturers. It will require a significant sea change, and fast.

Tackling climate change is high on the Government’s list of priorities. This was recently evidenced by its decision to bring forward the ban on fossil-fuelled road vehicles (ICE) by 2035 and phasing out new gas-powered boilers by next year. These green ambitions were reaffirmed in the recent budget. Fundamentally, it appears the intention is there; even if it lacks the necessary strategy to achieve it.

From our perspective, a good place to start is how we make better use of the materials we build with.

An area which remains a constant thorn in the side of UK Plc is waste plastic. So far, a number of industries have led the way in terms of innovation, but the construction industry is lagging behind. We urgently need to consider how we reimagine, recycle and reuse plastic.

The bare necessities

Of course, a good place to start would be an industry-wide audit and evaluation on what classifies as essential plastics and to place much more emphasis on the use of recyclable materials.

To achieve this, we will need to win the hearts and minds of building product manufacturers as much as the developers purchasing their systems and solutions.

Next, and a slightly easier task to achieve, we need to consider how we repurpose recyclable plastics, from piping offcuts to workers’ water bottles.

Round and round

Since founding SureCav just over 15 years ago, I’ve been a passionate advocate of the circular economy and have found new ways to give high-impact, non-sustainable materials like waste plastic a new lease of life as low-impact ecologically-friendly ones.

Equally, we need to look at ways in which we can upcycle certain products and design out others. Concrete, which has a very high carbon footprint, is one which immediately springs to mind.

The UK architectural community has an opportunity and a duty to act now, becoming a catalyst for change across the whole of UK business and industry.

Designing out

Fostering a greater understanding of ‘designing-out’ redundant materials from the procurement process is critical; non-recyclable plastic being a very good example.

Equally, where substitutions occur in the construction journey, we need to ensure safe but sustainable solutions complying to the letter with regulations but also graded according to their carbon impact. I.e. if it scores over a certain threshold, it’s not fit for use on a given project.

This is as much about educating the builders’ merchant and contractor as it is about the architect and specifier. It’s only with joined-up thinking that we can phase high-polluting materials from the construction process.

Virgin plains

Fundamentally, we cannot keep drawing on natural resources indefinitely, and we need to think of how better to reuse what we already have. Last year, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation published a report titled ‘Circular Economy In Cities: Making Buildings with New Techniques that Eliminate Waste and Support Material Cycles’. Here, the organisation makes a compelling case for the strategic sourcing of materials.

Importantly, it promotes the use of locally sourced materials and keeping products in use continually to reduce virgin material demand. This could include everything from giving some materials a second life through recycling or salvaging undamaged and structurally sound materials from demolitions. It seems a better plan to me than have it all go to landfill or worse, fly-tipped.

The potential benefits are myriad, aside from reducing the amount of resources we excavate and exploit, we will see a reduction in pollution from building product processing and construction. Equally, we will be reducing the amount of waste we generate, reducing pressure on landfill and ultimately, improving life quality for future generations.

Ironically, if we are going to address the issue of waste plastic, we’re going to have to start thinking with a greater degree of plasticity.

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