In the past year there has been growing momentum behind a movement to address many of the waste issues that are threatening the environment both domestically and worldwide.

Part of this has been prompted by changes to the waste and recycling export market, with China refusing to accept materials shipped in from other nations in an attempt to consolidate its own resources.

While much of the attention surrounding this issue has been focused on consumer habits, with things like food packaging bearing the brunt of the criticism, there are other areas which have come under scrutiny. This includes the construction industry, which is understandably responsible for generating vast amounts of waste as part of its daily operations.

Concerted efforts to combat this problem and deal with the projected increases that are just anticipated over the coming decade are being orchestrated internationally. Understanding the scale of this industry’s waste issue is the best way of making sure that there is more public backing to make improvements.

Global complications

What many might not appreciate about the construction industry is that it is not only concerned with creating new buildings, but also demolishing outdated structures and clearing land to make way for the latest developments. For every jib crane that lifts brand new materials into place on-site, there is a dump truck carting tons of rubble away. Clearly this adds up quickly, with the waste needing to be processed and disposed of.

A recent study from Transparency Market Research forecasted that by the time 2025 rolls around, the amount of waste materials being produced by construction and demolition efforts worldwide will top 2.2 billion tons annually. That is equivalent to twice the amount currently generated each year at the moment, which is clearly an undesirable increase given that there are already strong arguments for taking action today.

North America will be second only to the Asia Pacific region in terms of its contribution to the world’s construction waste production in the next 5 years. Analysts also ranked regions according to their ability to process waste construction materials, with Europe leading the way in terms of both technological advancement and current reuse and recycling rates.

Cutting waste is not just about sustainability and eco-friendliness, but also safety. Landslides caused by building debris have swept away entire communities in some regions, while toxic materials that are dumped unthinkingly can lead to health concerns and natural disasters in their own right. This is even present in more heavily regulated nations, with examples of groundwater contamination cropping up in the US.

Material matters

The recyclability of materials varies wildly across the waste spectrum. As many might anticipate, a little over half of the volume of waste outputted by the construction industry is made up of materials associated with building work. This category factors in everything from wooden planks to concrete, asphalt and beyond.

In general it is relatively straightforward to reuse and recycle the detritus create by demolitions and the off-cuts from new projects. These materials are either straightforward to process and return to a practical state for deployment, or can be repurposed to fulfil a different role which nevertheless takes them out of the waste cycle.

Where greater challenges lie is in dealing with materials that are either difficult or currently impossible to recycle. Plastic once again rears its head as a key culprit in creating concerns, with a study in the UK revealing that 44 per cent of those working in construction are not aware of the regulations which govern the recycling of packaging made using this material.

This level of ignorance is reflected in other parts of the world and is ultimately a sign that the construction industry is not doing enough to train and educate its employees in order to ensure that they are up to date with the proper approaches to recycling.

In the US, plastic recycling rates actually fell last year, dipping by 4.4 per cent. Up to 242 million pounds of plastic waste ends up entering the oceans as a result of America’s current policies and practices each year. Construction operators are complicit in this alongside consumers, businesses and indeed government organisations.

Experts agree that a lack of cohesion, both on a national and international level, is leading to this state of affairs. Without well defined guidelines to follow, it is easy for slip ups to occur, or for poor waste management practices to prevail due to a lack of awareness about the issues discussed so far.

Silver linings

The profile of the great waste debate, which touches not just construction but other industries and sectors, is growing at the moment. This is prompting more forceful attempts by government agencies and campaign groups to maintain the momentum of the movement and encourage the wider adoption of policies which will not only help reduce waste, but improve efficiency.

The Environmental Protection Agency has guidelines specifically targeting sustainability of construction and demolition waste. Reduction is at the top of the agenda for change, since by avoiding over-ordering there are a lot of complications that can be overcome. Operators are also encouraged to buy used products, or those that have been recycled, to bolsters a circular economy in the industry.

Over-ordering is being taken on in other countries, and for good reason. In the UK, 60 million tonnes of material which is order for use in building projects has to be sent to landfill sites each year as a result of this. Furthermore the damage that can be caused to materials if they are improperly handled, stored and transported contributes to the issue.

In Scotland, a new initiative is being spearheaded to pursue construction waste innovations, with the hopes of creating over 1,200 jobs and generative more than £682 million ($889 million) in revenue for the organisations involved.

Some solutions need to be factored in at the design stage, since by the time a construction project is underway, with workers, equipment and materials on site, it may be too late to make much of an impact on over-ordering. Tracing things back to architecture and overhauling the policies and infrastructures which fuel the industry will pay dividends in the long term.

Construction waste needs rethinking from the ground up.

High tech solutions

With a problem of this scope, one of the most challenging aspects is associated with gathering data to determine the extent of the impact made by construction waste and the methodologies which are proving most effective in minimising this.

Digital solutions are the best option in this case, especially when it comes to ensuring that the waste policies which are developed and deployed by the international community are adhered to by businesses.

Significant funding is being plumbed into this process in some countries, with tracking tech being pushed as the best way to keep tabs on how construction firms are handling the waste materials they generate. With increased scrutiny, it will not only be possible to pinpoint honest mistakes but also identify and punish those that are deliberately flouting the rules.

The smart waste management market was only worth $1.12 billion in 2016, but is anticipated to expand to over $4.4 billion in time for 2025. This will in part be achieved through reuse and recycling, but will also rely on techniques that turn waste materials into fuel for an efficient, eco-friendly new generation of power plants.

Even without all of the other concerns surrounding construction waste, the fact that there is only a limited amount of room for landfill sites to occupy means that failing to make efforts to impact the market is unthinkable.

In the future there may even be an emergence of entirely new materials which are used for building projects, replacing traditional options and becoming far more sustainable as a result. One team of researchers suggest in a 2018 paper that treated biosolids, otherwise known as human faecal matter, could be turned into bricks to allow the world’s ravenous appetite for construction to continue growing without consuming yet more precious resources and creating more waste.

With a huge variety of innovative ideas being posited and pursued globally at the moment, it might seem like the long term prospects for the issue of construction waste are positive. It is certainly helpful to look on the bright side, rather than succumbing to the temptation to consider it a lost cause, yet having a sense of perspective is also important. Even with all of these changes that are currently in motion, the doubling of the construction sector’s waste output seems inevitable.

At the core, improved education, training and appreciation of waste management challenges and solutions will make a major difference in how the next generation approaches this issue. It is only through the collective will of people around the world that improvements will be achievable. Regions which lead the way will be remembered by history for the efforts they made and the benefits that their forward thinking outlook brought to the whole planet.

The future is uncertain but people have the power to shape it for the good of everyone.

Elliot Preece