Making cyclical construction a sector-wide objective would help meet decarbonisation objectives and strengthen supply chains, providing certainty to deliver infrastructure projects at the scale the UK needs, writes Joanne Conway

I don’t think many people would disagree with me when I say that 2023 was a turbulent year for our industry. While there was lots to be positive about in terms of innovation and sector collaboration, continued pressure from all sides – from global supply chain squeezes to a lack of clarity on policy – has left many of us scratching our heads about the direction of travel in 2024.

Joanne Conway

Joanne Conway is executive group chair and CEO of the FM Conway Group

We have also never seen this level of scrutiny and debate about the role that infrastructure should be playing in UK growth and decarbonisation. Conversations are well timed to the recommendations laid out by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) as part of its recent five-year assessment (NIA2), which will guide government investment over the next 30 years.

I want to draw attention to an area that is often less talked about in the infrastructure conversation – construction waste, and specifically how accelerating our adoption of a circular economic model can help us to meet both the long-term challenges presented in the NIA2, and the ongoing challenges our sector is facing.

>> Also read: The UK is setting the standard for energy-efficient homes but there is still some way to go

While the construction industry has come on in leaps and bounds in the way that it approaches the reuse of resources, recent data published by the Construction Leadership Council showed a 15% increase in waste volume compared to the previous year. That moves the industry even farther away from targets set out in the government’s Construction 2025 strategy, with housebuilders and contractors becoming less efficient at usage and reusage of materials.

Though decarbonising the solid waste sector was one of the pillars of the NIA2, construction waste played only a minor part in its recommendations. That is despite acknowledgement by the NIC in 2021 that it could play a central role in delivering the infrastructure needed to achieve net zero.

Competing objectives have clearly allowed other discussions to take priority in the national debate, but I think there has been a missed opportunity to talk about how a circular economic model can not only drive us towards net zero, but help the sector to achieve its wider infrastructure aims.

Keeping resources in use for as long as possible and recovering materials at the end of an asset’s lifetime is an approach that should underpin all projects. It allows vast streams of resources to be funnelled back into building and maintenance, reducing construction costs and the carbon footprint of projects.

The circular model is particularly relevant for highways, where many materials on the road network can be infinitely recycled

Given recent material inflation rates and continued supply chain squeezes, insulating ourselves from the ups and downs of the import market is also the smart thing to do, making us less exposed to the volatility of current world events.

The circular model is particularly relevant for highways, where many materials on the road network can be infinitely recycled. From aggregates used to make asphalt to water extracted from gullies, we know this model can be very successful.

We recently delivered a 92% recycled road surface for a project in London thanks to recovered aggregate, yet standard practice often limits recycled content for roads to 50%, including as little as 10% for surface layers.

The circular economy is a subject that has been gaining momentum. Figures by Mace in its Closing the Circle October 2023 report estimated that 13.8 million tonnes of material and components could be saved in London alone by adopting a circular model, the equivalent of 11 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Waste initiative ReLondon is also looking to pick up the baton for the capital with a London circular construction coalition, bringing together private and public sector organisations.

It is a conversation that needs to be happening on a national level. Establishing cyclical construction as a sector-wide strategic objective would not only help to meet decarbonisation objectives, it would strengthen supply chains, providing the control and certainty needed to help us deliver infrastructure projects at the scale the country desperately needs.

So my call to the industry at large is that we must take the opportunity in 2024 to identify where else the circular model can help construction bring about a resilient infrastructure system – and one that minimises our impact on the environment. It won’t solve all our challenges, but it can go a significant way to meeting them sustainably while delivering economic opportunity.

Joanne Conway is executive group chair and CEO of the FM Conway Group