Why construction need to incorporate plastic into the carbon agenda

January 23, 2023

The construction sector has a vital role in the transition to Net Zero Carbon and the world successfully achieving its global emissions reduction targets. However, it is increasingly evident that doing so will only be possible by reducing the over-dependence of the sector on plastic.

The Link Between Carbon and Plastic

As the world warms, planetary boundaries are breached and environmental stability declines, the pressure is on for humanity to address factors driving climate change and adopt methods that safeguard the planet. The goal is to try and prevent the worst effects of climate change by limiting global temperature increase to 1.5 °C since preindustrial times. This target might seem impossible, however, scientists say there is still hope if drastic and immediate action is taken to bring emissions down, by at least 45% over the next 10 years.

The main focal point of bringing emissions down surrounds the global transition away from fossil fuels and towards sustainable alternatives, with an emphasis on achieving carbon neutrality and net zero. Commitments towards net zero have become increasingly popular over the last few years, with more than 70 countries setting a net zero target, including the world’s biggest polluters – China, the United States and the European Union.

These global targets and commitments to transition away from fossil fuels are promising and show a global desire for change. However, these commitments will never be met without addressing plastic production and consumption. Plastic is made from the byproduct of oil and therefore, directly links to fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite this, plastic production is not set to slow down – annual production volumes are expected to rise from 445.25 million in 2025 to approximately 590 million metric tons by 2050 – an increase of more than 30%. If plastic production grows at the rate of current projections, by 2050 it would represent 56 gigatons – 10-13% of the entire remaining carbon budget.  It has been further reported that if we stay on our current path, annual plastic flows to the ocean are expected to grow from 11m tonnes in 2016, to 29 million tonnes by 2040.

Throughout their lifecycle, plastics have a significant carbon footprint. In 2019, 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions were accounted for by plastic – 90% of these from production. If the current projections for plastics are met, by 2060, emissions from the plastics lifecycle are predicted to be more than double, reaching 4.3 billion tonnes of GHG emissions. The fact remains that a carbon neutral existence is impossible without urgent and immediate actions to cut plastic production and implement effective strategies for plastic waste.

One report, Breaking the Plastic Wave, looked into possible pathways to prevent ocean plastic pollution. This report stipulated that even if “all current major industry and government commitments are met, the world would see a reduction in annual rates of plastic pollution flowing into the ocean of only 7% from the Business-as-Usual scenario”. ‘Breaking the Plastic Wave’ will therefore require the participation of all “political leaders, policymakers, business executives and investors to shift from incremental to systemic change”.

Global motivation towards ending plastic pollution is underway. Earlier this year 175 countries within the United Nations congregated together and committed to developing a legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution by 2024. The resolution addresses the full lifecycle of plastic including production, design and disposal. Following this historic event surrounding this global treaty, scientists are now calling for the issue to be tackled at the source. They suggest turning down the plastic tap by regulating, capping and long-term phasing out of the production of virgin plastic, whilst also recognising recycling is ineffective.

Recycling has gained considerable interest over the years, however there is reasonable scepticism about its effectiveness. Only 9% of all plastic waste is recycled – 15% is collected for recycling, but 40% of that is disposed of as residues. Therefore, recycling as a solution to plastic waste, does not offer the best strategy for addressing it and appears to be a perpetuated way that the plastic industry can continually produce plastic whilst appearing ‘environmentally conscious’.

Consequently, the most effective way to deal with plastic is to reduce the demand for virgin plastic, curbing its production and waste outputs, whilst at the same time, promoting recyclability and circularity of the plastics that are already in existence.

Fighting Plastic Consumption in the Construction Industry

If global targets are to be met, every industry needs to reduce its plastic consumption and mitigate the impacts of plastic waste and production. In 2017, a report provided a breakdown of plastic production per industry. The construction and building industry accounted for the second largest amount of plastic production after packaging, producing 65 million metric tonnes of plastic per year – 19% of total global production.

The most commonly used plastics in the construction industry include polyvinyl chloride (PVC), high-density polyethene (HDPE), and expanded polystyrene (EPS). These plastics are ideal for construction and an essential component in the built environment – they are strong, durable, waterproof, lightweight, easy to mould, recyclable and can be used for various applications such as windows and doors, seals, pipes, cables, floor coverings and insulation.

Plastics in construction and the built environment are everywhere; it is hard to imagine a building without them. Plastics even make up 37% of the paint lining our walls – paint has recently been found to be the largest source (58%) of microplastic leakage into the Ocean & Waterways (1.9 Mt/year), with the World Economic Forum stating that paint microplastic emissions must be at the top of the global environmental agenda.

Throughout the entire supply chain of construction, plastic waste is generated. In the UK construction industry alone, 50,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste is discarded every year. Unfortunately, plastic waste in construction has not received the attention that it should have. This could be due to the lack of financial gain in relation to effective sorting, segregation and disposal, and the fact that compared to other waste streams the material is lightweight, therefore subject to lower landfill tax and can slip under the radar more easily.

There is movement towards recyclability in the construction industry but the figures are still incredibly low – in the UK around 33% of construction plastics are recycled, 33% are incinerated and the remaining goes to landfill. In fact, the UK construction industry saw an increase in its plastic waste output by 45.72% over the last two years, even though plastic waste as a whole fell in the UK by 2.68%. These statistics highlight the urgency that the UK construction industry needs to adapt and implement efficient and sustainable ways to manage its plastic waste.

There are signs that the construction industry is trying to make sustainable changes, embracing material reuse and recycling, embodied carbon and the circular economy. In Europe, 46% of recyclates are used in building and construction applications that require high-performance and durable products. In the UK, a plastic tax has been enforced, which applies to all plastic packaging manufactured in, or imported into Britain, that does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic. In America, ‘America’s Plastic Makers’ incentivised an ambitious plan to make 100% of plastic packaging recyclable or recoverable by 2030, and 100% of plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or recoverable by 2040.

These progressive initiatives surrounding plastic are promising, however a holistic approach to reducing the construction industries dependence and disposal of plastics needs to be implemented, especially if global initiatives and carbon neutral strategies are to be met. Plastic is fundamentally linked to fossil fuels and climate change, therefore unless it is included in global carbon agendas and significantly reduced, a carbon neutral and net zero future is simply not possible.

Changing Streams

At Changing Streams, we support the construction industry’s transition and reduction of plastic by offering a broad range of services that allow companies to become more sustainably resilient. We do this by identifying ways in which they can design and build using planet-friendly methods which use less carbon and plastic through research and consultation.

We offer practical and effective ways that companies can reduce plastic in the construction process, from design to on-site build. In addition, in collaboration with industry partners, we are running projects that will help reduce the use of plastic packaging for building materials and long-term strategies to source sustainable alternative materials to plastic.

Our Research Centre is actively pursuing research and innovation into the development and use of sustainable alternatives which represent a significant reduction in plastic. The research and development programmes are facilitated by the collaboration of experts from across the construction, scientific and environmental communities. This interdisciplinary approach allows for the effective development of solutions to reduce plastic throughout the construction supply chain, including the design, development and construction process itself.

If you would like to find out how you can cut your carbon footprint and help build a more sustainable world, contact us today.

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