Construction – a plastic pollution legacy in the making?

Of the 400 + million tons of plastic the world produces each year, about 10% ends up contaminating the ocean, waterways and soil. Every piece of plastic we ever produced still exists today unless it has been incinerated and it takes 100’s of years for most fossil-based plastics to breakdown. It is possible that when some plastics degrade, they can become micro-plastics, which can then enter the food chain. The impact of micro-plastics on human health are currently being investigated, but the early prognosis is not encouraging.

According to Plastics Europe, the construction sector is responsible for about 20% of plastic consumption. I have spent most of my life working in packaging, which is by the far the biggest consumer of plastic waste. Retailers and brands are working hard to make changes to meet future legislation and taxation, but also to protect their reputation and brand values. All at a challenging economic time when material, energy and other costs have been rising rapidly.

Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD)

We are starting to witness the impacts of the packaging waste directive, which aims to make the polluter pay through EPR – Extended Producer Responsibility and ensure all packaging is reusable or recyclable by 2030. There are many details within this directive (some of which are still being worked-out and should be announced in April 2023), which will impact different materials and sectors.

Here’s a summary (source: Interplas Insights with some minor amends)

  1. New proposals target: Reusability, recyclability, size and uptake of recycled materials.
  2. Proposals will apply directly to companies.
  3. The revision of the PPWD involved three problems: Low levels of packaging recyclability, growing levels of waste and low levels of uptake in the use of recycled plastics.
  4. It was decided that the policy would be made a regulation rather than a directive to combat legal issues. 
  5. All packaging will need to be recyclable, according to the proposal.
  6. According to the plans, recyclable packaging includes: materials that are designed to be recycled, be collected separately, be able to be recycled at a large scale and be able to be recycled in a manner that materials extracted from it are good enough to contribute to the circular economy.
  7. The commission will establish a recycling performance system.
  8. Packaging should be designed so that it can maximise reuse- packaging of beverages will have a reuse target of 10%, some of the strictest rules target takeaway food with a reusability rate of 40%.
  9. There is an exception on the recyclability of wine products.
  10. The size of packaging will be scaled down to a minimum against its weight and size ‘the empty space ratio should not exceed 40%.’
  11. Plastic packaging will need to contain a share of recycled plastic, the amount changes dependent on sector, but 30% is the likely target.
  12. The method for calculating the share of used plastics in items will be decided by the end of 2026.
  13. By 2040, packaging used for E-commerce will make up 50% of the market.
  14. Single use plastics will be banned in some sectors, unless there are special circumstances.
  15. There will be a 100% reusability target for the transport of goods within a single member state or between two sites of the same company, or linked businesses.
  16. The system will grade products A-E. E will mean a product is not recyclable and be banned from the market.
  17. Proposals will be supported by secondary legislation.

According to RICS, in the UK, a third of construction plastics are recycled, a third go to landfill, and the final third are incinerated. Six different plastic types account for around 90% of all plastic waste, with PVC being the most common, comprising about half of all waste plastics, followed by polyethylene and polypropylene.

Construction has had little impetus to directly tackle plastic waste because the material is lightweight compared to other waste streams and therefore subject to lower landfill tax. Environmental certification schemes, such as BREEAM and LEED, do not directly tackle plastic, although they do feed into certain material and waste credits.

RICS points out that there is a growing industry focus on material reuse and recycling, carbon consumption and the circular economy and this has helped shift the debate and accelerate efforts to eliminate plastic waste whilst at the same time reduce energy consumption through better design and the application of new technologies. However, there is much still to do despite some great examples being set by some construction companies.

Plastic vs. plant-based materials – which has the least impact?

I am often asked this question.

Both have an impact on the environment, but to different degrees because no synthesised material is made without the use of energy and resources powered by carbon-rich sources such as coal, oil and gas. There is no perfect material currently available, and this is an inconvenient truth. However, good news – this could soon change with the development and scale-up of alternative plant-based materials and products.

If we compare fossil-based plastic with materials, made from trees, plants and mycelium, to measure the carbon extracted and CO₂ emitted into the atmosphere, we need to consider the full life-cycle of the materials from cradle to cradle as well as the manufacturing processes, logistical and construction/assembly impacts.

We could discuss other material comparisons like aluminum vs. steel, which again I’m frequency quizzed about, but that’s a debate for another day. Meanwhile, let’s explore plastic and look at the alternatives that are available.

Plant-based alternatives

Cellulose is harvested from plants and managed forests (typically from FSC or PEFC certified pine and eucalyptus trees) and includes sugarcane (bagasse – the waste byproduct of the sugar-making process), bamboo, corn (PLA), miscanthus (elephant grass), mycelium, seaweed, hemp and many other plant-based materials. Plants are naturally powered by sunshine, water and other nutrients whilst sequestering CO₂ from the atmosphere, producing oxygen, regulating water-flow, maintaining biodiversity and regenerating and stabilising soil and climate fluctuations at the same time. These materials are often easy to recycle many times over, unlike plastics, which are difficult to separate and recycle – particularly multi-layer laminates. On average, we recycle about 85% of the cellulose fibre we produce, rigid plastic 10% and lightweight flexible plastic less than 3%. Some of the cellulose products mentioned are made from precious food sources, such as corn, and can’t easily be recycled and repulped with cellulose fibre, but can be collected with food waste and industrially composted.

Thinner filmic plant-based biopolymers are also sometimes home compostable because they can biodegrade at ambient temperatures. There are also biodegradable and oxy-degradable fossil-based plastics, which have already been banned in countries like Italy because of the confusion created as to how to recycle them properly and the contamination they can cause to soil, water and air.

The clear visor for this PPE, shown in the picture below, was made from tree-based cellulose and performs just as well as plastic – if not better because of its superior clarity and dead-fold properties. This material is widely used in the food industry to protect and promote confectionery, dry beverages like tea and coffee, spices, powders and fresh produce. With special high barrier coatings and metallisation added, these widely recycled and industrially compostable hybrid materials can also contain liquids and sauces for periods of 6-12 months.

The challenge for the construction sector

Fossil-based plastics are highly flexible and functional as a family of materials, which have been developed and honed over the past 100+ years to provide outstanding performance. From window frames, plug sockets, pipes, tubing, cladding, flooring, paint, insulation and decking, different types of plastic and polymer additives have become invaluable. Replacing materials like asbestos and lead have given rise to safer products, which have benefited us all and widely improved health and living conditions.

However, after a visit to most construction sites, you will see many plastic waste materials not being separated and recycled correctly often because of lack of controls and knowledge of how to process these valuable materials. Shrink-wrapped bulk-packed goods, secured with plastic banding and expanded polystyrene protection being examples that come immediately to mind.

There are some great examples of plant-based materials grown locally and already being used in construction for insulation, signage, wall and floor protection.

There are many opportunities to reduce ESG impacts, which can also stabilise cost fluctuations if implemented in a holistic, joined-up and strategic way. Some of these developments can attract ESG grants and funding as well qualifying for R&D tax credits.

PVC – Polyvinyl Chloride

PVC and expanded PVC is one of the plastic material groups that retailers and brand owners are trying to stop or have already stopped using for packaging because of its carcinogenic properties when burnt. PVC is widely used within building construction for most of the products mentioned above because it is UV and structurally stable provided it is not subjected to more than 100°C.

Are there alternatives? Yes. You can make similar products to PVC and ePVC from cellulose, but often cost more and need further development, testing and importantly certification for performance and safety requirements. Additionally, there are issues regarding the lifecycle for materials like PVC that are different from those with packaging materials. Based on current estimates of the lifespan of these plastics, plastics from construction currently entering waste streams have on average been in use since around 1970. Those being used now in the building and construction sector will largely be entering the waste stream in around 2070. So, what the industry does now in terms of using plastic products will have long-term implications for environmental health or pollution.

I was with an Austrian plastic manufacturer recently who produce packaging for liquid dispensers, salt grinders and pharmaceutical receptacles. Their slogan is ‘rethinking plastic’ so I asked them “could all these products be made from plant-based cellulose polymers and perform as well”. The answer was “yes”, but the nurdles cost more and in some cases tooling would need to be redesigned. So, it is possible for some products, where practical. Much of the alternative bio plastics available are made from bagasse (sugarcane waste) and therefore probably imported from Asia or South America so the carbon footprint, social and other ESG impacts of these materials do need to be taken into account.

I recently updated my decking from timber to compressed, anti-mold, slip resistant, bamboo with a 25 year guarantee. Due to the damp area in my garden, the timber decking was not only slippery when wet, but also started to rot within about five years. I don’t know what the additive is being used to repel moisture, but I am hoping it’s not a PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic Acid) – the same material DuPont/Teflon used to add to their cookware before they were sued $700 million in 2017. This depressing story was eloquently shared in 2020 in the movie Dark Waters. PFOA’s are still being widely used today and can be found in many imported packaging products.

Well, I do hope that cheered you up! At least, this provides you with some clarity around planned changes coming, which will be inevitable when the PPWD starts to take effect.

Already, we have witnessed bans for plastic straws, stirrers and ear buds and in October 2023, we will see further bans for disposable plates, cups, drink-ware, cutlery, trays, wrapping or packing films around sweet boxes, invitation cards, and cigarette packets plus plastic or PVC banners less than 100 micron. Predictably, more will follow and will impact the construction sector.

It is minefield understanding the viable and scaled-up alternative materials available and what impacts these have on the waste recovery and recycling infrastructure, which is woefully inadequate, disjointed and under invested – particularly in the UK.

Most of our plastic waste is still currently exported to poorer countries where it is sorted (often by hand) and in some cases incinerated without necessary controls in place. The UK Government is being lobbied hard to stop this activity and there are signs that this will happen in the near future.

I keep a close eye on what is unfolding and thus far it has been a slow and painful process. China and India have now stopped plastic waste imports from all countries, but countries like Turkey and Myanmar are still accepting our waste.

The future

We stand at the vanguard of change, a critical point in time armed with new found knowledge of what we now know as plastic pollution. We are also cognisant of the truth about plastics, a value-added, byproduct of the oil industry and the negative impact this material can have on the environment, food chain and potentially on human health.

If you would like help achieving your ESG goals and reducing your dependency on fossil-based plastic, we can probably help you. To book a consultation, please do make contact with us.

Author: Ian Bates
Independent advisor and consultant to Changing Streams.

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