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Why the built environment sector must advance the circular economy

by BiD Admin
circular economy

Stephen Hemmings, head of environment and sustainability at drywall construction materials manufacturer Siniat, explains how the sector can advance the circular economy by choosing deconstruction over demolition.

In the increasingly pressing fight against climate change, the construction industry still has a long way to go to make a lasting impact. While progress is undoubtedly being made, with new homes now required to be built with optimum energy efficiency and low carbon heating, there’s still plenty that needs to be done in the journey towards net zero.

The truth is, the construction industry must look beyond just new homes’ performance and introduce more ambitious, wider, sustainability strategies. One way in which we can diminish our carbon footprint is by not only designing and building homes that are more energy efficient, but also by considering what happens to the materials within them at the end of their life cycle. More specifically, we must shift the way we specify products from being based purely on performance and instead, look towards the circular economy.

A closed loop model

An effective closed loop model starts with the end in mind – in short, by considering what will happen to the materials within it when a building is no longer fit for purpose. This mindset will encourage building designers, developers and architects to plan for a building to be deconstructed, rather than demolished, from the outset. At the beginning of the design process, building materials should be specified based on their ability to be recycled and reused, as well as on how well they perform.

This is something we learned during our involvement in Gypsum to Gypsum – an EU commissioned research product that was launched to explore how a closed-loop model of material use would help the industry to become more sustainable. The study highlighted that, in comparison to traditional approaches, closed-loop recycling reduces the whole life carbon of projects. This is particularly important when considering that the whole life carbon assessment is becoming a key consideration for developers. Despite the fact the study looked at gypsum – the main component in plasterboard – this method can be applied more widely and the closed loop model is already being used across multiple areas of the construction sector.

Collaboration is key

Building with recyclable materials alone will not be enough to fix the problem. Although a number of building products used are often infinitely recyclable, many still end up in landfill rather than being recycled once they are no longer fit for purpose. In order for the industry to become truly sustainable, we must make sure that the entire supply chain works together to adopt and fully embrace a circular model of material use. For this to be most effective, education, training and continued collaboration must be prioritised.

Circular economy

Closed-loop recycling is pretty much cost neutral for manufacturers like ourselves. However, the advantages it provides when it comes to sustainability means it is a method we utilise as much as possible. It also means we no longer have to rely on using large quantities of virgin material, something we have been seeking to avoid over the past few years.

As a result, our plasterboard contains post-consumer recycled gypsum at over 20% as standard, which is around twice the sector average and we expect this figure to grow to 30% by 2025. This has required substantial investment over the years and hasn’t been an easy journey, but completely worth it to ensure we are taking steps in the right direction. 

Awareness of the benefits of working to this model need to be promoted to everyone involved.I It is vital that the entire supply chain collaborates in order to make a step change towards a more sustainable future.

The danger of all parties not being fully bought in is demonstrated when you look at contamination with other materials during on-site waste disposal. For example, when recycling gypsum, the cleanest possible sources from well-segregated gypsum collections are preferred so awareness and training in avoiding contamination of materials is crucial.

Whilst this sounds simple, it is quite common for products such as empty sealant packages to be thrown into plasterboard skips onsite, which can be hugely disruptive to productivity as it can slow down recyclers.

Ultimately, contaminating materials have to be separated and whilst this can be a challenging task, it could be easily resolved by ensuring that all on-site workers understand that nothing other than plasterboard goes in the plasterboard skip, the reasons why this is so important and how it can impact productivity moving forward.

Using the correct infrastructure is also important when building a closed loop future. Here at Siniat, our manufacturing plants have been upgraded to ensure we are able to utilise a consistent supply of post-consumer gypsum alongside production scrap put back into our manufacturing process. We believe it’s steps like these that will create real, lasting change over a longer-term basis. 

Creating lasting change

As the climate crisis accelerates, as a collective, the construction industry must start implementing changes to its processes sooner rather than later. Looking at the circular economy specifically, a great place to start is for all of those involved in the planning and construction of buildings to take a holistic view of their lifecycle, taking into consideration design right through to deconstruction in the initial stages. It will be no small feat to ensure that the circular model is adopted throughout the sector, however it is vital that we continue to make gains here and foster collaboration across the entire industry. Only by doing this will we be able to really disrupt current ways of working and create monumental change.

Read next: How offsite technology is transforming UK construction

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