As the world becomes aware of the environmental challenges posed by massive plastic consumption, the construction industry is reducing its reliance on single-use plastics and increasing the use of recycled plastics.

It can take up to a millennium for plastic items to break down in landfills, but in the short term, the reputation of the material deteriorates much faster. Increased awareness of the impact on the environment has led companies and individuals to reassess their relationship with plastic.

As a major consumer of single-use plastic, the construction industry could help dramatically reduce waste by consuming less and instead reusing and recycling more.

The most common plastics used in construction are polyvinyl chloride (PVC), high density polyethylene, and expanded polystyrene. Plastic is used for various applications such as seals, windows and doors, pipes, cables, flooring and insulation.

It can take up to a millennium for plastic items to break down in landfills, but in the short term, the reputation of the material deteriorates much faster.

The industry also traditionally uses plastic films for packaging. Wherever facilities and recycling systems exist, packaging can be bundled and incinerated in waste incineration plants.

Plastics are not all created equal

Not all plastics are bad and consumption in the industry is expected to increase as, for example, plastic pipes already make up most of the new installations of pipe.

“Contrary to popular belief, it is important to recognize that plastics are often a positive thing in construction,” says Allan Sandilands, Principal Consultant at the sustainability consultancy Resource Futures. “Many are very durable, long-lived, and permanently installed so they are unlikely to become marine litter.”

In addition, plastics are inexpensive, strong and yet light, easy to shape and easy to care for.

“The biggest challenge in construction is separating, reusing and recycling plastic waste at the end of its life,” says Sandilands. “The benefit isn’t always financial – it’s more about corporate social responsibility and commitment to best sustainable practice – so it can be difficult to sell.”

He adds, “In our experience, there has not been a huge effort in the construction industry to approach single-use plastics as we see elsewhere, as they are insignificant in terms of tonnage compared to other waste streams and ‘does not have a huge impact on the bottom line the contractor.”

The need to protect the company’s reputation for the environment is pushing the risk agenda in the construction industry, said Donna Thomas, managing director, Energy and Power, Marsh. “There have been known cases where construction projects have caused environmental damage or where projects that have not yet started have concerns about the potential for damage to the public; we know these circumstances can negatively affect the reputation of the companies involved. ”,” She says.

How do companies do it?

Some companies try to make a difference as they see the reputational benefit that comes with it.

In 2019, the German developer and builder Diringer & Scheidel Group used recycled plastic in the construction of a 13-story residential tower in order to save 1,613 tons of concrete and 136 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. The client used a patented cavity-forming system from Heinze Cobiax Germany that uses recycled plastic; In essence, steel-reinforced plastic air bubbles replaced up to 35 percent of the reinforced concrete normally required in ceilings.

In the UK, Mace is one of several companies that have set goals to reduce plastic consumption as part of their “Time to Act” campaign.

Working with customers and the company’s supply chain, Mace is taking steps to reduce single-use plastic, including the use of reusable overshoes, a closed system for plastic liner, and an experiment with reusable dump troughs for concrete washouts.

Mace has also worked with its mechanical and electrical supply chain to change the use of plastic in goods – with a supplier of MEP modules and cables reducing single-use plastic in its products – as well as packaging, saving the equivalent of 40 tons of plastic will waste a year.

In addition, Mace has launched a program to clean up beaches and rivers everywhere from North America, the UK and Ireland to Dubai and Vietnam, collecting an estimated two tons of plastic waste. It examines how the use of recycled materials can be increased.

Contractor Multiplex launched a plan in July 2019 with two focus areas: eliminating single-use plastics and promoting the circularity of existing plastic items.

The “7: 5: 3” plan addresses 15 plastic categories by banning avoidable single-use plastic items, replacing plastics with alternatives, or finding a new use for plastics at the end of their lifespan.

For example, in its $ 282 million Principal Tower project in London, Multiplex switched from plastic mastic tubes to foil mastic tubes, saving more than 9,290 single-use plastic tubes and reducing packaging waste by 96 percent. Small steps like these can make a huge difference when done together.

While the international construction sector still has a long way to go, businesses can be urged to pay more attention to plastic waste and materials as nations outline plans to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 under the Paris Agreement.

Construction companies can examine carbon material databases, such as the US Carbon Emissions Inventory, to measure the carbon content of various types of plastic as a starting point for environmentally friendly reductions in consumption.

As economies around the world grapple with the transition to a new circular economy for plastics, the construction sector is well positioned to become an important part of the transition.

From consumer waste to building material

Plastic waste from consumers has the potential to become an important resource for the construction industry. Some construction products – such as pipes and PVC doors and windows – already contain some recycled material, but new uses in construction are emerging quickly.

From the perspective of embodied carbon, plastic is far less energy-intensive to manufacture than conventional materials such as concrete and steel, especially when it is recycled. It also has technical advantages such as its high strength-to-weight ratio, durability, and corrosion resistance. Combine all of these properties and you have an ecologically attractive offer.

Recycled plastic waste is also used to reinforce asphalt in road surfaces. MacRebur, a UK-based company, makes pellets from plastic waste that melts into the asphalt mix to create a stronger, more crack-resistant road surface.

Bridges are another contender for recycled plastics. The world’s longest recycled plastic bridge with a span of 30 meters was built in 2011 over the River Tweed in Peeblesshire, Scotland. Several are also in the United States, where the system was pioneered.

The challenge in making a product from recycled materials is to ensure the quality of the raw material. That requires changes in both technology and attitudes – viewing used plastic as a resource, not waste.

As economies around the world grapple with the transition to a new circular economy for plastics, the construction sector is well positioned to become an important part of the transition.