More infrastructure, more construction, less waste – is this possible?

The construction industry has been one of the few sectors allowed to continue operating throughout the lockdowns. It is believed that infrastructure development can help stimulate economic growth, providing an impetus for employment and implementation of new technologies such as smart highways. The opportunity in infrastructure development could extend beyond the construction sector. Especially with the ambitious net-zero targets that the UK government has set.

The construction industry is the single biggest user of resources. The latest available statistics reflect that construction resource use in 2016 was 66 million tonnes. Additionally in the UK recycling levels are relatively high at an average of 90%. There are strong traditional mindsets prevalent in the construction industry, where many companies still operate with a very linear, old school way of thinking. These new pieces of legislation combined with expectations for construction to ramp up productivity means that they’re going to be under pressure and will need additional expertise to ensure they’re compliant. What are some of the ways that the waste management sector can help and what types of successful projects are already underway?

Electric Vehicles and related infrastructure

Government’s announcement in 2020 that they would ban the sale of all petrol and diesel vehicles by 2025 raised a number of eyebrows. While this announcement has noble intentions, implementation has a significant number of challenges. Building sufficient EV charging stations around the country is only the first challenge. Ensuring there is enough stable energy infrastructure to feed these charging stations is another. Then there is the controversy of how the supplied energy is generated. If it is not from renewable resources then it negates the gains from switching to electric vehicles. Some opponents have also cited that EV batteries will be yet another waste stream generated from this initiative. Yet none of these challenges are insurmountable, especially if circular economy thinking and innovation is applied. Batteries can be recycled, clean energy infrastructure can be developed. And with the right expertise it can be achieved very efficiently.

Resources and waste

One of the many downsides of Brexit for construction is the impact that is being felt on the supply chain. Just 4 months into the year there are already shortages of construction materials that need to be imported. However, voices within and outside of the construction industry are asking if there isn’t a better alternative. Statistically speaking the majority of construction materials are recycled and turned into aggregates or moulded into construction forms. But is too much of this taking place beyond our borders? Could local recycling capacity be increased? Could the construction industry be convinced to use more repurposed and recycled materials rather than relying on importing virgin resources?

Already there has been great success in projects building roads with recycled rubber tires as part of the surfacing aggregate. These roads are proving to be much quieter, especially on busy highways and the surface is lasting longer despite heavy traffic volumes. There is no shortage of car tires, considering how many vehicles are on the road and how often tires need to be replaced.

One aspect that has had a significant impact on construction waste recycling is on site sorting. When wood, metal, plastics are separated out from concrete waste, for example, it makes the recycling process much more efficient. Wood waste can be recycled into plyboard, plastic remolded into lintels and other building materials and metal can be smelted and recycled to make rebar and other construction supports. Many construction companies are more focused on ensuring they meet construction milestones, so there is an opportunity for consultants and recycling companies to gain contracts as the construction industry ramps up output.

Innovation and circularity

There are some construction industry leaders that are looking to innovation as one of the ways to improve productivity and gain a competitive advantage in the industry. Already in the past year there has been a significant leap forward in terms of digital transformation and working towards a more sustainable future. In this circular economy strategy has a big role to play. Waste industry professionals with senior expertise are likely to become increasingly sought after as construction companies start to realise how complex creating circular economies may be.

It is in looking at the construction industry that one realises while they may be poised to spearhead economic recovery in the UK, their growth with have a ripple effect. The waste and renewable industries too, have an important part to play. Demand for environmental, recycling, and waste management expertise is set to increase and there are many opportunities in the months ahead.