Each year, the UK uses over five million tonnes of plastic, and the construction industry accounts for nearly a quarter of that. As fossil fuels deplete and our plastic waste rapidly increases, the construction industry needs to significantly reduce its reliance on plastics. James Ayres of Lime Green Products Ltd, discusses how we can reduce plastics in construction and makes predictions for its future in the industry.
Over recent years, the negative impacts of plastic waste on our environment has been widely discussed. Globally, there has been an effort to reduce the use of single-use plastics and increase the use of bioplastics, recycled plastics or recyclable plastics. As a result, an environmental spotlight has been placed on the UK construction industry, which produces a shocking 50,000 tonnes of plastic waste each year. Much of this waste is incinerated, releasing toxic fumes into the environment, and around 40% is sent to landfill as it cannot be recycled.
This incredible amount of plastic waste is making it both urgent and crucial for the construction industry to take key steps in reducing its use of plastics.
Existing targets and guidance
In 2018, the UK government introduced the policy A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment, with the ambition to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. The plan involved extending supplier responsibility, possible bans on certain materials, additional research and development, and greater recycling efforts.
The Resources and Waste Strategy, published in 2018, is the blueprint for eradicating all avoidable plastic waste over the 25 year plan.
How can we reduce the use of plastics in construction?
- Design with the circular economy in mind – during the design process, consider how materials will be disposed of. This could involve thinking about waste from packaging and drawing from your waste management plan. It could also involve considering how building materials comprising plastic will be disposed of once they come to the end of their lifecycle in years to come. For example, petroleum based insulation systems, such as polyurethane foam products, are very challenging to dispose of. However, natural insulation systems, such as those made up of woodfibre and lime render have much simpler and greener end of life disposal options.
- Use alternatives to plastics – wherever possible, try to use sustainable materials which can be easily disposed of. This may include using sustainable materials in the construction itself, such as lime, woodfibre or wood. For packaging, it could involve opting for a product which is packaged in recycled or recyclable materials, rather than single-use plastic.
- Dispose of waste well – waste is inevitable on any building site. However, how you dispose of that waste can either support or damage the environment. Be sure to recycle whatever can be recycled. If you’re unsure, you can contact suppliers to find out whether materials can be recycled, and they may even be happy to collect any waste to dispose of it themselves. If materials can’t be recycled, send them to a licensed waste management contractor, as they will know the best way to dispose of any unrecyclable waste.
You could even create a waste management plan, which will not only reduce your environmental impact, but it could result in significant cost savings too.
What are the benefits of minimising plastic use?
- Natural alternatives are healthy in use and disposal – natural alternatives to plastic can be easily disposed of and often naturally biodegrade over time. They are made up of safe and healthy polymers, meaning they don’t release toxic fumes into our atmosphere during use or disposal.
- Natural alternatives do not compromise strength – the easy disposal of natural material does not compromise their strength and durability, as many benefit from the same strength, rigidity and weather-resistance of plastics.
- Protect our fossil fuel supplies – plastics use fossil fuels, which are depleting at an alarming rate. By using alternatives to plastics, we can reduce our fossil fuel consumption.
- Reduce toxic fumes in our atmosphere – with many plastics being incinerated at the end of their lifecycle, minimising plastic waste in construction can help to reduce the amount of toxic fumes and carbon emissions released into our atmosphere.
- Minimise plastic waste in our landfills – disposing of plastics effectively or recycling them can decrease the amount of the material that is sitting in our landfills.
What will the future look like for plastics
- Development of hybrid materials – although it may not be possible to entirely remove plastics in construction, we may begin to see the emergence of hybrid materials, comprising around 95%+ natural materials and a small quantity of plastics.
- Healthy plastics will find their place in construction – it’s likely that plastics will be developed to a point where they are sustainable for use within construction. This could include the development of plastics to ensure they are 100% recyclable or the more frequent use of repurposing plastics for alternative uses, such as plastic roads or plastic concrete.
- Emergence of more bioplastics – there is already a growing interest in biobased plastics, which are generally used in packaging. These plastics contribute to lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduce demand for fossil fuels. It’s likely that the construction industry will develop alternative bioplastics or adopt their use for the packaging of construction materials.
For more information about how you use natural alternatives to plastic in construction, visit http://bit.ly/lime-green-products-ltd or call 01952 728 611.
James Ayres is co-founder and operations director at Lime Green Products Ltd