An EU-backed research project on recycling gypsum shows the potentials for other recoverable construction materials
With just one year to go until the COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference, attention is once again on how the UK can achieve its carbon reduction goals. The government has outlined plans for a self-styled green revolution with implications for construction including £1bn in funding to insulate homes and public buildings.
These steps are welcome but our industry also needs to do its bit if we want to kickstart a genuine shift in the way we design and construct buildings. Crucially, we must move to a model where the full lifecycle of a building is considered from the outset, thinking beyond immediate design and performance to include the recovery and re-use of materials at the end of a structure’s life.
Building sustainably doesn’t just mean procuring materials responsibly or creating more efficient buildings, but taking a circular view. It’s a lesson Etex took on board from our involvement in Gypsum to Gypsum – an EU Commission-backed research project to explore how to move to a closed-loop model of material use.
While focused on one material, gypsum – the main component in plasterboard – the research findings shed light on issues and practices that will benefit the whole of construction.
Gypsum can be infinitely recycled and yet gypsum waste still ends up in landfill. There will be similar examples of missed opportunities for other potentially recoverable materials, from bricks and wood to concrete and asphalt. So, how can we change this pattern of single use?
First, we need to design with material recovery in mind and plan for deconstruction rather than demolition. That means prioritising materials in specifications for their ability to be recycled, as well as meet required performance and safety standards. By deconstructing rather than demolishing, we can minimise material contamination, sorting waste at site in a controlled and precise process to aid salvage and recycling.
We need to design with material recovery in mind and plan for deconstruction rather than demolition
Tracking what materials are used and their location in a building is vital to this. The EU Commission’s research project called for mandatory deconstruction audits for buildings over 1,000m2 to provide a detailed inventory of a structure’s materials, setting out the scope for recovery and re-use. Arguably the push towards better building information modelling and the golden thread principle could play a similar role.
Clearly this change of approach is a significant undertaking. The EU-backed research found that a fully-functioning closed loop industry cannot be the responsibility of one operator alone. Construction and demolition companies, waste collectors, recyclers and manufacturers have to work together.
Investment will also be required. Practically for us, it has meant setting up our own waste recovery business to ensure reliability and consistency of supply in terms of the post-consumer gypsum that is fed back into our manufacturing process. It has also meant upgrading our plants to handle recycled material and planning for a new advanced facility specially designed for this purpose.
And yet the benefits are clear – for businesses, for the industry and for the environment. In our case it means we aren’t fully reliant on quarried gypsum or desulphurised gypsum – a by-product of coal power which is fast disappearing as the government switches to greener alternatives. In 2020 we were able to set a new UK record for the ratio of reclaimed gypsum being recycled into new plasterboard.
For our industry, the labour costs of sorting materials on site and transporting them to a recycling centre are offset by the economic and environmental cost savings of avoiding waste disposal. Reputationally, it is our opportunity to show how construction can play its part in tackling the climate change emergency. We can only do that if we design, specify and build for recyclability.
Steve Hemmings is the head of environment & sustainability at Etex Building Performance