As questions continue to be asked about the suitability and safety of existing building materials is it time, not only to outlaw the use of certain products, but to consider their content and impact on health, safety and the very existence of life as a whole?
In light of the Grenfell Tower disaster, the government is proposing a new regulatory watchdog for construction products with powers to prosecute companies that make dangerous building materials and ban their products. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government claim that the regulator will have “strong enforcement powers including the ability to conduct its own product-testing when investigating concerns”.
The suggestion that some of the cladding materials used on Grenfell were combustible, combined with the weakness of the product testing regime, inspections and enforcement is horrific, given the risk to residents and the tragic loss of 72 lives. A tragedy, of the like, must never be allowed to happen again.
Whilst rightly the focus here is on fire safety, another hidden danger is one which is already impacting life across the globe. The dependence of the construction industry on building materials containing plastic is of significant concern.
The work and coverage of leading figures such as Sir David Attenborough and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have raised our awareness that plastic is a problem and also to the damage that is has been causing for years unchecked. Forecasts suggest that if trends continue our use of plastic and waste flowing into the oceans is expected to nearly triple in the next 20 years.
Construction is the second largest user of plastics behind packaging. Whilst the industry accounts for a significant amount of plastic packaging waste, there is a great risk that we overlook the hidden danger of plastics contained in the very materials which make up our homes and buildings. The presence of plastic is obvious in certain products such as uPVC windows, pipework and guttering, but there are also large amounts of plastic hidden in the very make-up of a vast array of products to provide us with the benefits of longevity and durability, lightness and ease of use or application, water-resistance and thermal enhancing properties.
The very nature of plastic and its longevity is ironically one of the greatest dangers. It is estimated that approximately only 14% of plastics are collected to be recycled, 14% are incinerated, 40% goes to landfill and 32% leaks into the environment.
Another hidden unknown is the risk to health from plastics. Some studies suggest that some of the plasticisers added to plastic to give it the desired properties could be a risk to employees working in construction. The research continues in this area to explore the health effects further and so for now the dangers may remain hidden.
One of the lessons from Grenfell is surely that at all levels across construction we need to improve the quality of how we build and the materials we use in the process. Whilst regulation and watchdogs are an important part to ensure laws and guidelines are adhered to, the greatest protection is when we work together as an industry to manufacture products and to design and construct buildings which respect the very quality of all life itself.
Changing Streams is actively working with businesses across the construction sector to reduce their plastic footprint. An invitation is extended to manufacturers of building materials to join together with Changing Streams to pioneer the reduction or eradication of plastics out of their products. Working in collaboration with industry and education institutions across the world, Changing Streams is at the forefront of research and development into innovative new products and materials that will reduce the impact of plastics on the future of our industry and life on planet earth.