Ben Griffiths is operations director at Rye Group
A recent report from the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee found that the construction, excavation and demolition industries are responsible for 62 per cent of the UK’s waste. This may be a shocking figure, but not surprising given that construction underpins our economy and society, whether for schools, hospitals, offices, factories or transport and energy infrastructure. It is also essential in ensuring the government’s housing quotas are met.
“It is a little-known fact that 98.5 per cent of materials demolished on site are reused or recycled”
Of course, demolition is carried out in the most environmentally friendly way possible and only when other alternatives have been exhausted – for example, to make way for better, more modern living, or to ensure a potentially unsafe building doesn’t cause injury or worse to the public.
There is no doubt the industry is doing its best to change its practices with the technical advancements now available that make the process cleaner. Additionally, huge efforts are already undertaken to ensure most materials processed at demolition sites are reused and recycled.
Where we are now
Given the importance and inevitability of demolition, the industry is determined to continue making significant changes to ensure the process is less taxing on the environment. It is a little-known fact that 98.5 per cent of materials demolished on site are currently reused or recycled. Disused timber is either repurposed for other projects or used as biomass in power stations. Meanwhile, plasterboard is reprocessed to create new plaster, and bricks are cleaned and reused in new projects or crushed for use in foundations.
More can be done to achieve elevated levels of recycling and reuse, as demolition companies continue to invest in technology to sort through several types of rubble and soil, and separate metals and concrete. Significant changes are also in the making when it comes to the use of harmful fuels that power essential machinery.
The National Federation of Demolition Contractors has created a policy stating that its accredited members should be able to demonstrate their ability to use alternative fuels by December this year. Many businesses are switching from diesel to hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) to meet these standards. HVO is produced from waste oils, such as chip fat, and offers a reduction in emissions of 90 per cent compared with conventional fuels.
We are also seeing changes in the way contractors operate that can have meaningful impact. For example, many hire locally to ensure that minimal travel to projects is required. This lowers the generation of daily employee travel emissions to and from work. In addition, more initiatives are under way to donate furniture and appliances to charity shops, small businesses or schools, which benefits local communities and improves rates of reuse.
For many, dust is the first thing they associate with demolition, and mitigating its spread is something the industry is keenly focused on. Along with the continued use of dust-monitoring sensors, one major step in tackling this problem is by working on the advancement of water-based dust-suppression systems.
These systems are used to soak buildings before, during and after the demolition takes place. Doing so is vital to limiting the spread of any environmentally impactful dust particles and protects the wellbeing of those living nearby. Despite the improvements we’ve seen with these tools, we strive to achieve this with minimal water wastage.
Reducing the impact of demolition on the environment is a work in progress, but the industry is fully aware of its responsibilities, especially as there is a business case as well as an ethical case to be made in doing so. Construction companies have their own environmental targets to meet and will only hire contractors they consider green, which includes demolition-service providers. In fact, it is necessitated by rules set out by the Environment Agency.
While these regulations and operational changes are giant steps toward a more sustainable building industry, there is still a way to go. For example, we need to aim towards optimising the reuse of materials, rather than recycling. This is not something the demolition industry can do alone.
To make long-lasting change the sector will rely on construction companies and architects to work together to manage the design of future buildings, ensuring that supplies are fit for repurposing and logged in material passports. These documents track the items used on a building project for reference. Fortunately there is a real appetite throughout the entire building supply chain to ensure operations meet our legal obligations and eventually exceed them.
Efficient planning and management of sites, from build to demolition, is going to have the biggest impact on the demolition industry’s effect on the environment. Considered use of materials will transform our ability to reuse them for other projects. It is also key that workers are undertaking continuing professional development training and engaging in workshops, conferences and learning courses. This would ensure they grow with the industry and its environmental needs.
There are ever-changing policies and legislation in place to protect the planet and it is paramount that the people who are working on site have a great understanding of the impact they could have. This would, in turn, get young workers invested in making positive change.