High diversion from landfill sounds good, but that’s only part of a much bigger picture

Andrew Kinsey

The UK construction industry now achieves some impressive diversion from landfill figures, but are we a bit complacent?

Over the last few years the construction and property industry, like other business sectors, has been focused on achieving ever-higher diversion from landfill targets. While this is a laudable objective, championed through initiatives like Wrap’s Halving Waste to Landfill programme, in practice this only encourages doing something different with the waste rather than reducing the amount of waste actually produced.

Companies report seemingly impressive diversion from landfill figures and the best performers in the industry report near zero waste to landfill figures already. However, this doesn’t mean they are producing any less waste than before; just perhaps they are simply good at ensuring that it doesn’t get dumped in holes in the ground.

In part, this is because our UK landfills are now too expensive or in some places simply unavailable. The landfill tax and other waste legislation has helped to change the economic landscape of landfill over the past few years and this probably accounts for a large part of the improvement in diversion from landfill rates. To add to this, it would seem that we may be getting better at measuring it, rather than achieving any step change in behaviour or improvements to processes.

Concentrating on reducing waste to landfill only encourages doing something different with the waste rather than reducing the amount produced

The fact is, the construction industry is still producing far too much waste - around 120 million tonnes every year according to Wrap, and this hasn’t really changed that much in the past 10-15 years.

The waste hierarchy sets out the order of preference for how we should be managing waste – namely, reduce, reuse, recycle, recover (energy) and landfill (the least desirable option).

Much of the diversion from landfill currently reported is achieved either through incineration and the recovery of energy, or ultimately through the transport of the materials to be processed in faraway places such as China.

Of course there are huge impacts with this, but because they are hidden within an overall diversion from landfill statistic, you can’t always see them. If you can’t see them, you can’t manage them properly.

People can bask in the warm glow of satisfaction that they are achieving high diversion from landfill rates which sounds good, and, so long as clients’ requirements are met or being exceeded, everyone is happy.

Many clients now specify diversion from landfill targets, but it’s still unusual to see targets specifically for reuse, which is higher up the waste hierarchy. Waste reduction targets may be set through requirements in the most recent versions of BREEAM, but this only covers non-hazardous construction waste, not demolition or excavation waste.

In practice, achievement of waste reduction targets in BREEAM is often left to the contractor to achieve with little or no consideration to reducing waste through the design process. The Site Waste Management Plan regulations (also a requirement of BREEAM) were meant to ensure client and designer engagement in minimising waste, but the regulations have not been adequately enforced, and are due to be repealed in England.

The way in which buildings are designed and how the process of construction is managed so that waste production is reduced or avoided are critical factors in determining the total quantum of waste produced. Similarly, whether buildings can be deconstructed for reuse and recycling at the end of their life, rather than being smashed to bits are important considerations. None of these are well reflected in the current metrics used in the industry.

We should consider whether buildings can be deconstructed for reuse and recycling at the end of their life, rather than being smashed to bits

Perhaps one of the challenges is understanding what the measures of waste reduction used actually mean.

A percentage of waste diverted from landfill should be readily understood, but what does a waste reduction target such as an amount of waste per £100,000 of spend or per 100m²floor area, actually mean? What does “good” look like?

At Mace one of the ways we are tackling this is to attempt to articulate our waste reduction targets in notional monetary terms. After all people understand money much better than tonnes of waste.

At Mace, we report on diversion from landfill too, but mainly because it is a metric that many of our clients either require or recognise. Using Optimise, our bespoke version of BRE’s SMARTWaste, we’re also monitoring and trying to reduce waste production too.

Andrew Kinsey is an operations director and head of sustainability for construction at Mace