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Disrupting the construction industry  

Disrupting the construction industry: Driving sustainability through the circular economy

While designing and building energy efficient new homes and installing low carbon heating has certainly helped in efforts to address climate change and achieve net zero, the built environment still has a long way to go in its drive to become more sustainable. Simply, the sector needs much wider and far-reaching sustainability strategies in place if it is to really make an impact.

Our industry is one of the world’s largest consumers of raw materials and is responsible for vast amounts of waste – 35-40% of the UK’s total emissions, in fact.  But we can change this by looking towards the circular economy and specifying products based not just on their performance, but on their potential to recycle and reuse.

Adopting a closed-loop model

Instead of manufacturing products, using them and then disposing of them, the circular economy is about recycling and reusing the products.  This closed-loop model starts at the end, in other words, by thinking about what will happen to the materials when a building is no longer of use at the design stage of the project.  If this is to work in construction, then everyone involved in a project, from initial design phases through to construction, need to plan for the building to be deconstructed, not demolished.

Specification based on a product’s ability to be recycled and reused is something we discussed when we took part in an EU Commissioned research project – Gypsum to Gypsum.  This looked at how  a closed-loop model of material use could help the industry to become more sustainable.  When compared to traditional methods, the study identified that closed-loop recycling can reduce the entire life carbon of a project, an important factor when you consider that developers are now assessing both operational and embodied carbon emissions throughout the life of their projects.

Although this study focussed on gypsum, a closed-loop model can be applied across the board and is already being used in several aspects of construction including plastics, steel, glass, and even carpet tiles with some manufacturers ensuring that each component of their carpet tiles can be recycled into raw materials for new products.

The key to success is through collaboration

Simply using recyclable materials will not fix the problem.  If we want to become truly sustainable, we need the entire supply chain to work together.  Some products can be recycled infinitely, but many are still ending up in landfill rather than being recycled.  Attitudes and understanding need to change and the way to achieve this is through education, training and prioritising collaboration.

For manufacturers like us, closed-loop recycling is pretty much cost neutral, but the sustainability advantages it provides means we are committed to using it whenever possible.  It also means we no longer have to rely on large quantities of virgin material in our manufacturing processes.  In fact, our plasterboard now has a standard post-consumer recycled gypsum content of over 20%, which is around twice the sector average. With continued investment, hard work and commitment, we expect this figure to grow to 30% by 2025.

For us, we can see the benefits of closed-loop recycling which help us to continue our journey to become more sustainable.  However, the advantages might not be so clear for others in the supply chain, which is why we need better understanding and collaboration throughout its entirety. For example, empty sealant packages are often thrown into plasterboard skips on sites, but through training and education workers will understand that this is unproductive as it slows down the recycling process.

Having the right infrastructure in place is also important.  Our manufacturing plants have been upgraded to ensure we are able to utilise a consistent supply of post-consumer gypsum which is taken from sites and put back into our manufacturing process. We believe it’s steps like these that will create long-term, lasting change.

Embracing a more circular business model

Time is of the essence if we want to address the climate crisis.  By embracing a more circular model and considering the entire lifecycle of a building from design through to deconstruction at the concept stage, we can effect change.  It’s not going to be easy,  but we need to do all that we can and encourage collaboration across the entire supply chain.   Only by doing this can we can disrupt the construction industry and make a real difference.

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