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Opinion Piece

Why is the reuse of construction materials and products so important?

Opinion piece by Debbie Ward, Reuse/ Circular Economy from Alliance of Sustainable Building Products

Looking at the bigger, biggest, picture, we are not in great shape. Our world has finite resources and we have been using, are using and will continue to use up for some time – even as we transition to better practices – more resources than can be replenished; restricting and even taking away completely those resources for future generations to use. The way we extract, manufacture, build, use and dispose of materials is also having a devastating impact on climate change, pollution and biodiversity.

From plastic bottles to the bricks and concrete we use for buildings and roads, the weight of all the things we produce has been doubling every 20 years. At the same time, the weight of living things has been falling, mainly due to the loss of plant life in forests and natural spaces.

According to a study1 by the Weizmann Institute of Sciences in Rehovot, Israel, 2020 was the approximate time we hit the crossover point when human-made mass from the likes of roads, buildings and machines, overtook that of all the living things in the world. At 4 billion tons, the mass of all of Earth’s animals combined now sits at just half the mass of the amount of plastic that has ever been produced (over 8 billion tons).

The built environment sector needs to use the technology, innovation, experience and creativity already available to us to shift away from business as usual and be open to new ways of sourcing materials, to design materials and products for reuse, to salvage from existing buildings and be bold in our expectations, ambition and action around what the built environment can and should deliver.

Reducing our carbon emissions is a fundamental part of mitigating climate change which also has positive impacts on pollution and biodiversity loss. Linked to this ‘Net Zero Carbon’ is now a hot topic in industry, and rightly so given the built environment is estimated to contribute to 40% of the UK GHG emissions, of which 80% is from the operation of buildings (heating/cooling) and 20% is from embodied carbon (extracting, making, transporting, installing, using, disposing of construction products). There is an intrinsic connection between carbon reduction and circular economy strategies and practices which is not always promoted or even considered.

There are many reports including from the UKGBC2 and Ellen MacArthur Foundation3 stating clearly that carbon reduction targets cannot be achieved without circularity. The key principles of a circular economy are to 1) design out pollution and waste, 2) to keep materials at their highest value for as long as possible, and 3) to be regenerative and restorative – or in other words to be ‘more good’ rather than ‘less bad’, eg. cleaning up some of the river in addition to not polluting it rather than just to reduce how much it is being polluted.

The principle of keeping materials at their highest value for as long as possible is best explained by an extended waste hierarchy of Rethink – Refuse – Reduce – Reuse – Repair – Refurbish – Remanufacture – Repurpose – Recycle – Recover Energy and Re-mine. Keeping materials and products ‘looping’ around these value chains bring a number of benefits including maximising resource use by keeping products in high value applications for longer (also reducing resource extraction), minimising waste and as mentioned, lowering carbon emissions.

Focussing particularly on Reuse there are a number of key enablers and drivers including:

  • Culture & Processes: showing the art of the possible – sharing best practice and case studies where reuse has been implemented; ensuring reuse is encouraged/stipulated through procurement processes; understanding the carbon emissions implications as part of the justification of reuse
  • Infrastructure – establishing more physical reuse hubs and storage options in addition to digital hubs (eg Reyooz and The Rebuild Site); having more genuine take back schemes including facilitating reverse logistics back to manufacturers (eg raised access flooring through RMF and carpet tiles through Interface and Tarkett with IOBAC reversible fixing mechanisms)
  • Incentives and Legislation – more and clearer tax, financial and carbon incentives; implementing the GLA CE planning statement requirements in other authorities; extending the EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (due to start in October 2023) to the UK
  • Supply and Demand – connecting and collaborating to understand what the supply chain can already offer; pre-redevelopment/pre-deconstruction audits to create a materials list for potential reuse to supply the reuse market; ensure contract documentation includes salvage for reuse supply-side and/or to specify reuse for the new project on the demand-side

To drive the shift away from business as usual towards circularity and reuse we need to look beyond operational carbon and ensure embodied carbon is fully considered as part of the whole life carbon calculation and reduction strategy. To do this we need to be asking the right questions to better understand our options and be able to make informed decisions. For example, two steel sections maybe be functionally the same but with very different carbon footprints. The assumption of them both being recycled steel maybe correct, but where/ how were they recycled? Was one exported for processing and reimported with the other processed in the UK? Was the recycling process of the sections done using an electric arc furnace or a blast furnace? Could one steel section have been sourced from the deconstruction of an existing building and therefore have significantly lower embodied carbon? Noting that reusing steel beams and columns recovered from end-of-life buildings creates 97.5 percent less carbon emissions than conventional steel products (47kgCO2e per tonne compared with the World Steel Association’s global average for steelmaking of 1,850kgCO2e)4.

From informal conversations through to formal procurement processes, we need to use the levers available to us to increase reuse and encourage internal teams and suppliers to consider how the specification of reused materials and products can be incorporated into tender responses and project delivery.

The Alliance for Sustainable Building Products (ASBP) believes that increasing the uptake of materials reuse is key to the delivery of a true net zero carbon agenda based on reduction. As such the team has undertaken a number of projects around the reuse agenda, most recently focussing on steel through the completed DISRUPT I and current DISRUPT II Innovate UK funded studies . We are also reigniting our Reuse Now campaign with the intent to drive the uptake of reuse in the construction industry and become the ‘go to’ source of information for materials reuse in the sector.

As part of the campaign, the ASBP are hosting a Reuse Summit jointly with the Finishes & Interiors Sector (FIS) on the 18th October at ISG’s offices in London. Our lead sponsor is Cleveland Steel & Tubes. More information and opportunities to sponsor the campaign and Summit are available on our website  or please contact Debbie.ward@asbp.org.uk for further details.

1 https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/human-made-materials-now-equal-weight-of-all-life-on-earth

2 https://ukgbc.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Whole-Life-Carbon-Circular-Economy-Report.pdf

3 https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/videos/circular-economy-principles-for-achieving-net-zero-in-the-built-environment

4 –https://uk.emrgroup.com/find-out-more/latest-news/emr-worlds-first-environmental-product-declaration-ultra-low-carbon-reusable-steel

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