Aghast at the amount of waste generated within our industry and at our reluctance to do much about it, the government wants to make site waste management compulsory. But is it going after the right guys?

How many of you know what happens to your old kitchen or bathroom when you have it replaced, or to your old conservatory when you knock it down? You might rightly assume that it gets sent away to be incinerated or put into a landfill site somewhere. In most cases this is correct but, as we all know, there is a risk that it might end up in an unsuspecting farmer’s field somewhere in the Cotswolds.

This waste crime is something the government is becoming increasingly concerned about. At the beginning of April it published a consultation document inviting the construction industry to give its views on proposals to make site waste management plans (SWMPs) a legal requirement rather than (as they have been since July 2004) optional.

So why make them compulsory? First, the most obvious point is that the code of practice is only voluntary. In reality, it is mainly the larger players that have implemented it. Second, green issues are at the heart of the government’s political agenda – whether it is taxing gas guzzlers or giving tax breaks to those with energy-efficient homes – and it sees our industry as very much part of this.

In keeping with this green agenda, the government wants to reduce the amount of waste generated within the industry. In England and Wales it is estimated that about 400 million tons of solid materials are used each year in construction but only two-thirds of it finds its way into buildings. In addition, some 13% of material delivered to site is not even used.

The increasing problem of fly-tipping, together with the level of general wastage within the industry, are adding to the pressure to put the code of practice on a more formal footing.

The idea behind the draft Site Waste Management Plans Regulations 2008, which would come into force in April next year, is to oblige anyone carrying out a construction project on one site with an estimated project value greater than £250,000 to produce a SWMP before works start.

Fly-tipping and the level of general wastage are adding to the pressure to formalise the code of practice

The plan will need to set out things such as the type of works proposed, a description of the waste type that might be produced, an estimate of its volume and how it will be dealt with (for example, by reusing, recycling or outright disposal).

The SWMP must be updated regularly during the works as and when waste is removed and, further, must be kept for a period of two years after completion.

More detailed information will need to be included in the SWMP for projects worth more than £500,000. Failure to comply with the regulations by, for example, failing to produce or update an SWMP, forging an SWMP or making false statements in an SWMP will be an offence punishable by a fine or imprisonment or both.

Furthermore, where a company is guilty of an offence under the regulations and it is shown that it is as a result of, for example, an individual manager’s neglect, that person will also be guilty of an offence.

This sounds harsh but the likelihood of any convictions under the regulations being pursued is probably quite low, in the absence of persistent reoffending. More likely, the breach will be dealt with by payment of a fixed penalty – £300 is proposed.

As many large players within the industry already adopt sound waste management policies as part of their projects, the regulations are likely to have most impact on the smaller or medium-sized players involved in projects valued around the £250,000 to £500,000 level. The regulations do not apply to those who are, arguably, more like to engage in unorthodox waste disposal activities – those on the smaller projects valued at less than £250,000. Construction projects worth more than £200,000 only account for about 30% of projects carried out in any one year. It is those projects under £250,000 that the regulations should catch if the government wants to irradicate wastage in the construction industry.