Building up zero waste

Forget merely halving construction waste to landfill, Nick Langfield from the Leadbitter Group outlines steps the industry can take on the path to zero waste

After generations of irresponsibility, the last few years have seen impressive efforts from companies in the construction industry to reduce waste.

At the time that WRAP introduced its ‘Halving Waste to Landfill’ initiative in October 2008, the construction industry was seen as a major villain, and many of the main contractors had to sign up to the commitment to retain work. And what a challenge it seemed back then! The industry had piled health and safety requirements on our site teams over the years, and just as that seemed to be under control, this new responsibility arrived: waste management.

Three years on, however, and not only has the 50 per cent target proved feasible, but sites now achieve 70, 80, even 90 per cent recycling. This is done with very little effort on the part of the construction companies, as the waste carriers have their own targets, profits and environmental issues to keep in mind. Now, some major contractors aim for over 95 per cent or even 100 per cent diversion. While one hundred per cent diversion from landfill in a truly sustainable way may be a pipe dream at this stage, at least we are working to be responsible, pushing waste carriers to introduce new systems for difficult waste streams. Segregating waste on-site is the most important part of this process, to provide clean waste streams that require little sorting.

Six months ago, for example, I was tasked with recycling polystyrene and found it very difficult, which I discussed with several of my waste carriers. As it turns out, as more companies (and not just in the construction field) aim to reduce waste, carriers are being asked this more and more. Suddenly, polystyrene recycling is a business opportunity as well as a money spinner. Asking the same question today, I have found two local companies that have started to recycle this waste.

Similarly, a year ago, the few companies that even recycled plastics needed them to be perfectly clean, something that is difficult to guarantee on a construction site. In my local area now, each waste carrier can recycle many different kinds of plastic, and many don’t mind if it’s filthy. I can also see rigid insulation board looming on the horizon – as of two months ago it wasn’t something waste carriers could manage, but I’ve been assured by my waste carriers that if there is an environmentally sound way of doing it in the UK, they will have fully investigated it by the time it becomes a problem.

According to the Construction Excellence KPI Database, some companies, even some of the bigger ones, are reporting zero per cent waste diverted from landfill, but in my opinion this is unlikely due to the rise in landfill taxes. It is imperative that we, the waste provider, are keeping and reporting accurate figures and information has undergone rigorous auditing, allowing us to monitor what is really happening across all industry bodies and to drive forward best practice. We can have a great influence on waste carriers by providing them with segregated, clean, valuable waste streams, but not all of us are using our influence to best effect.