Becoming more sustainable and reducing our impact on the environment is quite rightly top of the agenda for everyone – both consumers and businesses alike.
The construction and building industries have a significant role to play in this and can reduce their environmental footprint by contributing more to the circular economy.
This involves reducing the amount of new materials used – all the way from copper to sand, designing with a view to recovery of materials at end of life in mind, and taking more responsibility for recycling and recovery of those materials.
Currently, large commercial equipment is not legally required to be recycled as domestic products are.
This means that when chillers or boilers are replaced, for example, the old ones could end up in landfill.
Not only is landfill a significant polluter, emitting greenhouse gases into the air, but sending products to these sites means valuable materials that could be re-used simply go to waste – and more new materials are needed.
The impact of this is huge - in 2020 alone, 33.8 million tons of commercial and industrial waste were created. Ensuring that the building industry cuts this number will be vital to reach overall environmental goals. Luckily, the solutions are readily available.
The construction industry must have the processes in place to get back raw materials once products reach end of life
Designing with end-of-life in mind
Despite a lack of legal impetus, the building and construction industries can take more ownership for recycling their products. Starting at the earliest stages of concept and design, businesses can opt for materials that can be re-used and recycled at end of life.
Because disposing of a product comes so far through its lifecycle, focus at the design stage has been on cost and durability – with the ability to recycle parts coming as a lower priority. While the durability of a product does go some way to reducing waste, true sustainability means prioritising material retrieval right at the beginning of the process.
As well as choosing the right materials and design processes at the beginning, the construction industry must also have the processes in place to get back raw materials from products once they do reach end of life.
Copper is an excellent material to choose in this instance, as it is widely used for electrical wiring in heating and cooling products. However, reusing copper is not as simple as just melting it down.
Electrical wiring requires a very high purity of copper, and companies have to invest in both machines that use electrolysis to purify the contaminated copper, and engineers who know how to use the technology. Instead of seeing these outgoing costs as a waste, they must be looked at as a long-term investment – for reusing materials will cut down on future material costs.
Improving recycling programs
To ensure that products are being recycled, and to effectively recoup raw materials to re-use, manufacturers can also develop in-house recycling programs, or collaborate with an external recycling plant. A reliable recycling service gives installers peace of mind that the materials in products will be reused in a sustainable way, while simplifying the process as much as possible will incentivise them to use it.
By making recycling the easiest option for installers removing or replacing old systems, or for construction companies demolishing and refurbishing old sites, the number of products going to landfill will fall – and more raw materials will be available to repurpose.
As the recycling program is directly connected to the product provider, these raw materials can often be brought directly back to the provider's recycling facility to be reused. Cutting out as many steps between the end of a product’s life and its materials being used again is important to boosting the efficiency of this process and kickstarting more sustainable production. Businesses can also go the extra mile in this area by transporting these units using low-carbon transport options.
If this focus on recycling and reusing materials at end of life is embraced, building a circular economy in construction could become the standard. As a result, it will be possible to significantly reduce the amount of waste generated by the sector, and recycling of commercial products will fall in line with consumer goods. We already have the power to make this change, and by collaborating with recycling plants, taking a more considered design approach, and turning recycled materials into new products, the industry can ensure a more sustainable future.
Martin Fahey is Head of Sustainability