As the world realizes the environmental challenges posed by massive plastic consumption, the construction industry is reducing its dependence on single-use plastics and increasing its use of recycled plastics.
Plastic items can take up to a millennium to degrade in landfills, but in the short term, the material’s reputation degenerates at a much faster rate. The increased awareness of its effects on the environment has prompted businesses and individuals to re-evaluate their relationship with plastic.
As a large consumer of single-use plastics, the construction industry could help significantly reduce waste by using less and, on the contrary, reusing and recycling more.
The most common plastics used in construction are polyvinyl chloride (PVC), high density polyethylene, and expanded polystyrene. Plastic is used for various applications such as gaskets, windows and doors, pipes, cables, flooring and insulation.
The industry also traditionally uses plastic films for packaging. Where facilities exist and recycling management systems are in place, packaging can be consolidated and incinerated in waste power plants.
Plastics are not all created equal
Not all plastics are bad and consumption within the industry is expected to increase, with plastic pipes, for example, already accounting for the majority of new pipe installations.
“Contrary to popular belief, it’s important to recognize that plastics in construction are often a positive thing,” says Allan Sandilands, senior consultant for sustainability consultancy Resource Futures. “Many are very durable, long-lasting and permanently installed, so they are unlikely to become marine litter,” he says.
In addition, plastics are economical, strong yet lightweight, easily formable and easy to maintain.
“The main construction challenge relates to efforts to separate, reuse and recycle end-of-life plastic waste,” says Sandilands. “The benefit isn’t always significant financially – it’s more in terms of corporate social responsibility and commitment to sustainable best practices – so this can be a tough sell.”
He adds: “In our experience, there hasn’t been a huge effort to tackle single-use plastics in the construction industry in the same way we see it elsewhere, because it is. insignificant in terms of tonnage compared to other waste streams and does not. does not greatly affect the results of entrepreneurs. “
The need to protect the company’s environmental reputation is pushing the risk agenda in the construction industry forward, says Donna Thomas, general manager of Marsh’s power and power division. “There have been high-profile cases where construction projects have caused damage to the environment, or, with projects yet to begin, the public is concerned about the potential for damage; we know that these circumstances can damage the reputations of the companies concerned, ”she said.
Selected examples of construction companies taking up the plastics challenge
How do companies act?
Some companies are trying to make a difference, recognizing the reputation benefit of doing so.
In 2019, German developer and builder Diringer & Scheidel Group used recycled plastic in the construction of a 13-story residential tower to save 1,613 tonnes of concrete and 136 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. The builder used a patented vacuum forming system by Heinze Cobiax Deutschland which uses recycled plastic; essentially, steel reinforced plastic air bubbles have been used to replace up to 35% of the reinforced concrete normally required in slabs.
In the UK, Mace is one of many companies setting targets to reduce their use of plastics through their ‘Time to Act’ campaign.
Working with customers and the company’s supply chain, Mace is taking steps to reduce single-use plastics, including using reusable shoe covers, a closed-loop system for protective plastic sheeting, and a test of reusable skip liners for washing concrete.
Mace has also worked with its mechanical and electrical supply chain to change the way it uses plastic in goods – with a supplier of MEP Modules and cables reducing single-use plastics in its products – as well as packaging, saving the equivalent of 40 tonnes of plastic waste per year.
In addition, Mace has implemented a program to clean up beaches and rivers everywhere, from North America, the United Kingdom and Ireland to Dubai and Vietnam and has collected around two tons of plastic waste. It is now looking to increase its use of recycled materials.
Entrepreneur Multiplex launched a plan in July 2019 with two key focus areas: eliminating single-use plastics and promoting the circularity of existing plastic items.
Called “7: 5: 3,” the plan tackles 15 categories of plastics by banning preventable single-use plastic items, replacing plastic with alternatives, or finding a new use for end-of-life plastics.
For example, Multiplex switched from plastic mastic tubes to sheet mastic tubes in its £ 200 million ($ 282 million) main tower project in London, saving over 9,290 single-use plastic tubes and reducing the volume of packaging waste produced by 96%. Small steps like this can make a big difference if done collectively.
While the international construction sector still has a long way to go, companies may be pressured to pay more attention to waste and plastic materials as countries outline plans to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 under the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Construction companies can examine carbonaceous materials databases such as the U.S. Carbon Emissions Inventory to measure carbon levels in different types of plastic as a starting point for determining how to reduce consumption in a respectful manner. of the environment.
From consumer waste to construction resources
Consumer plastic waste has the potential to become an important resource for construction. Some construction products – such as pipes and UPVC windows and doors – already contain some recycled material, but new applications in construction are rapidly emerging.
From a embodied carbon perspective, plastic is much less energy intensive to produce than traditional materials such as concrete and steel, especially when recycled. It also has technical advantages such as its high strength to weight ratio, durability and corrosion resistance. Combine all these features and you have an ecological proposition.
Recycled plastic waste is also used to reinforce asphalt on road surfaces. MacRebur, a UK-based company, makes pellets from waste plastics that blend into the asphalt mix to create a stronger, more crack-resistant road surface.
Bridges are another competitor for recycled plastics. The world’s longest recycled plastic bridge, 30 meters in length, was installed in 2011 over the River Tweed in Peeblesshire, Scotland. There are several in the United States, as well, where the system has been developed.
The challenge in creating any product from recycled materials is to ensure the quality of the raw material. It requires changes in both technology and attitudes – to view used plastic as a resource rather than as waste.
As economies around the world grapple with how to transition to a new circular plastics economy, the construction industry is well positioned to become an important part of the transition.