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The Plastic Problem of the Construction Industry

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Ben Dolbear delves into the history of single-use plastics within construction, and how one Merseyside builder plans to overcome the sector's reliance on the synthetic compound.

Photo by Chormatograp

This year, builders across the United Kingdom will contribute 50,000 tonnes of plastic waste to the environment, much of which will end up in our oceans. But Neal Maxwell has an ambitious plan to get this figure down to zero by 2040.

There have been impressive improvements on the recycling front in construction over the past few decades thanks to considerable efforts by industry leaders to improve sustainability but despite this, more than 40% of plastic waste from UK construction continues to be sent to landfill and creating thousands of tonnes of plastic waste that will not decompose for over 1000 years, causing hazardous threats to natural wildlife and the atmosphere.

According to UK Construction Online, the four biggest contributors to plastic waste in the industry by far are: plastic packaging, unused materials from over-ordering and off-cuts, improper storage and handling, and workforce food packaging and utensils.

As a result, the construction industry is second only to the packaging sector in terms of plastic waste, contributing a notable proportion of the UK's 3.7 million tonnes of plastic waste annually.

A Wasteful Industry

Disappointingly, despite recent progress on recycling, the future continues to look bleak for waste in construction. Allan Sandilands, a principal consultant at a waste reduction non-profit consultancy Resource Futures, has admitted:

“There is not a huge drive to tackle single-use plastics in the construction industry. It can be a difficult sell.”

Whilst stressing that much of the plastic in construction is embedded permanently in buildings and does not therefore contribute to short-term landfill waste, Sandilands has said that much single-use plastic continues to go to waste, largely in part to the absence of any financial incentives to act in a more sustainable fashion.

But Neal Maxwell, along with fellow researchers from the University of Liverpool, see hope for the construction industry, and have drawn up plans to push the curve of plastic waste down to an ambitious zero in just two decades.

An Action Plan

Working alongside industry-leading architect Dr Gareth Abrahams from Liverpool's School of Environmental Science, Maxwell's team have drawn up a four-point charter that they hope, if given backing by the UK government, will become enshrined in legislation;

  1. Comprehensive phasing out of paint containing plastic.

  2. The establishment of a 'traffic light' style guide to warn purchasers which paints contain plastic to allow them to be ethical consumers.

  3. The group hope government backing will enable the creation of a template house made without any plastic.

  4. The group want to end the use of plastic wrapping for all building materials from bricks to cladding.

Maxwell, a former builder, hopes the 'carrot and stick' approach to removing plastic from a market so heavily reliant on such a material will win over builders who are nervous about the costs of replacing plastics for more sustainable alternatives.

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