Sustainable building products: the factors to consider

James Brueton of Envirobuild speaks to Innovation News Network about sustainable building products and how legislation and cost will be the main driving force for a circular economy in the built environment.

Construction and demolition waste from the built environment is responsible for around 25-30% of waste generated in Europe. According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme, “the construction and operation of the built environment currently accounts for 60% of UK materials consumption and one third of all waste.” This huge volume of waste from a single sector means that encouraging the development of new, sustainable building products is more important than ever, particularly in light of Europe’s race to reduce CO2 emissions as part of its commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement.

James Brueton is the co-founder of Envirobuild, a sustainable building products merchant which recognises the vitality of this transition. Envirobuild donates 10% of its profits to protecting rainforests, to try and compensate for the negative externalities that many businesses forget about. Innovation News Network spoke to James about the role of the built environment in the circular economy, and how legislation and cost are the main factors for Europe to create a more sustainable construction sector.

What difficulties does the built environment face when we think about it as part of the circular economy?

This depends on how big the circle is. I have spoken to many people before who think of the circle as just being their own country. However, it is now much more globally focused, because a lot more products and materials are coming from abroad, especially the Far East. When materials reach the end of their life they can be transported to manufacturing regions to be recycled and processed back into new materials, and then transported back to Europe as new products.

Environmentally, it is much better to use materials which are manufactured and produced locally. However, the way in which everything is operating now – in terms of cost and going for the cheapest option – the margins in construction are not very good. On the developing level, margins can be high, but underneath them, on the contractor level, margins can be horrendous. Everyone is racing to the bottom for costs and this means that people will continue to buy the cheapest product, which probably means that they are products imported from abroad, which makes their circle bigger. You get to a point where you do not have profits to reinvest in the future of your infrastructure. This is one major problem.

The other issue is the recyclability of products. A lot of new products are compositions or layers of different materials and are therefore more difficult to recycle, or are not recyclable themselves once they reach their end of life. The challenges not only come down to the demand for such products, but the way in which manufacturers create their products to be recyclable. If there are no industry recycling schemes, it is often the case that the majority of the materials cannot and do not get recycled, go to landfill or get incinerated. These are the two main problems that I see in regard to the circular economy.

Are there sustainable building products being used in Europe that could begin to address these problems?

Personally, I believe that you have to look at a few factors before you can call something potentially ‘sustainable’. These would come down to the energy source which is being used for processing and transportation, the amount of time the product can be used for, the end of life recyclability or biodegradability for the product and the potential lifetime energy savings from using the product compared to traditional materials. But then there is also the demand for the product and how much it may be of used.

The best example would be softwood timber. On its own, it is a highly sustainable building product; it can be part of a renewable forest which can be grown fairly locally depending on where it is used and whether it is properly regrown, and then it bio-degrades at the end of its life. On the other hand, due to the quantity that it is used and demanded in today’s built environment, if the source cannot keep up with the demand, it will therefore miss on being used sustainably. I think that with the correct manufacturing, transport, energy and the appropriate lifetime use of a product you can get significant improvements on sustainability. It depends on many different factors.

Do you think that the building sector is doing enough to deliver a sustainable built environment? What more do you think could be done?

Not at all. On a small scale, we see a lot of different manufacturers providing more environmentally beneficial materials and products. On a small scale, these sustainable building products are very good and they have got good recyclability or biodegradability, a good lifetime use and they are trying to close the circle wherever possible. However, realistically to have a big impact, it needs to be done at scale and it needs to come from something such as a step change improvement in technology or a long term reduction in demand, because as a society we are consuming far more than we will be able to sustainably consume in the long term.

Another area that we can look to change includes focusing on a major shift away from manufacturing and transportation emissions and this will come from more investment into renewable energies. The two main drivers behind this change will be legislation and cost. The built environment itself is still very much cost driven within the legislation in place.

How would more sustainable building products benefit the citizens and businesses within the construction industry?

There is a report which was released by the UK Green Building Council which estimates that the amount of CO2 emissions that construction influences accounts for about 47% of the total CO2 emissions from the UK. Basically, it has a hugely significant impact on global warming and therefore should be high on government and industry agendas to tackle. The benefits are obvious; if we want to pass on our planet to our future generations, then this change needs to happen very soon, if not now.

What can we expect to see in the future for sustainable building products? Are there any exciting products looking to be released into the industry?

We may be in our own little bubble but I think that we are seeing manufacturers focusing more on sustainability and we are seeing products with higher recycled content within them. For example, with gypsum (plasterboard), there is now EU legislation that has made it considerably more expensive to throw away than recycle. This has led to the recycling rates on gypsum to be at their highest levels across Europe. Another example is aluminium. It is currently cheaper to buy locally recycled aluminium, rather than virgin produced aluminium from abroad. The industry is seeing a lot more products with enhanced recycled material coming into the market. However, there is still a lot of energy required for processing.
Reduce, reuse, recycle. Recycling is good but it is not going to be the complete fix for everything; you still need transportation and processing energy required to generate products into new ones.

There are some interesting biodynamic products, but in the built environment we need to replace the main elements like steel, glass and cement, and this is difficult. I haven’t seen anything that can truly replace these yet. I have seen some better cements that have reduced embedded CO2, but getting the industry to adopt these alternatives is very hard. They are more expensive and when businesses are on such low margins already, with little legislation to push them towards these alternatives, it will be an impossible task. There are some very interesting new materials out there, but will they have a scalable impact? I am still unsure at the moment.

I do think that one important factor that needs to be considered with the built environment and the circular economy is that instead of constantly building new communities or new structures, environmentally speaking, it would be much more beneficial to reuse and reshape what is already there and to ‘greenify’ areas. I think that has a lot of benefits to it and could really help communities, whilst in turn could reduce demand. Unfortunately, it is not very profit driven, so how plausible that will be, I am not sure.

James Brueton
+44 20 80312627

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