The construction industry is on a transformative journey toward sustainable practices, reflecting a profound shift in mindset over the past decade.
In recent years, stakeholders in the real estate sector have shifted from rhetoric to action, committing to reducing carbon emissions as part of their Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) agendas. In putting ambitious net-zero ambitions into practice, the industry has reached a sober understanding of the challenges ahead and started to discuss solutions.
The high cost of manufacturing new sustainable materials is a significant blocker in reaching these goals, threatening to slow the adoption and progress of sustainable development methods. Meanwhile, the demolition of older and less sustainable properties still contributes significantly to the UK’s material waste and carbon emissions.
Material reuse answers both of these problems and has the potential to mitigate many of the hurdles facing the construction industry on its path toward sustainability. Recycled building materials provide a simple and sustainable way of reducing energy consumption, emission and waste, often at a lower cost, aligning with the evolving priorities of the real estate industry.
Read on to discover the benefits of material reuse in construction, as well as the challenges facing this eco-friendly option, and initiatives that will help it thrive in the United Kingdom.
The Environmental Imperative
The United Kingdom generates a staggering 220 million tonnes of waste annually, with construction, demolition and excavation contributing to nearly 60% of that total. Meanwhile, the built environment is responsible for 45% of the UK’s carbon emissions. In many cases, this high environmental impact stems from waste mismanagement and inefficient use of resources.
Today, every construction decision must be seen through the lens of its carbon impact. Construction project performance now transcends the key indicators of time, cost, and quality. Carbon emissions have also become a decisive factor. Many construction firms are actively seeking eco-friendly solutions in response to the industry’s high environmental impact.
Consequently, the call to reduce carbon emissions has propelled the industry toward the ambitious target of achieving net-zero emissions. Main contractors, subcontractors, and supply-chain partners have embraced this imperative, committing to eco-friendly practices across the life cycles of their projects.
The industry has already taken significant strides in this direction. The utilisation of off-site construction methods for building components has been an influential trend in this sustainable journey, but the material costs for sustainable construction components both on and off site are a mounting concern.
In this landscape, material reuse is emerging as a game-changer, offering a sustainable alternative that not only mitigates waste but also significantly reduces the carbon footprint of construction projects at an achievable cost.
What is Material Reuse?
Material reuse refers to the practice of salvaging, refurbishing, or recycling materials and components from existing structures or projects and incorporating them into new construction. This sustainable approach aims to extend the lifecycle of materials, decrease the environmental impact of construction, and minimise the demand for new resources, contributing to a more environmentally responsible and cost-effective construction industry.
From bricks, steel and timber to entire components like windows, doors and kitchen units, an array of materials can be reclaimed and given new life in innovative ways.
Recycled aggregates serve as a prime example of material reuse. These hybrid materials are produced by crushing salvaged components, mixing them with new materials, and screening the resulting aggregates for quality until they meet the required specifications.
Material reuse extends to the creation of building materials manufactured from waste products. For example, recycled plastic bricks and concrete made out of steel dust are emerging as eco-friendly alternatives. The original materials often originate from demolished buildings, excess materials from other projects, or waste generated from construction, cutting down on waste while creating durable new materials.
Topsoil, which is often a by-product of excavation during groundworks, is another valuable resource. Once processed, it can yield nutrient-rich soil suitable for landscaping and nurturing plant life, contributing to a more ecologically sustainable environment.
Material reuse encapsulates a fundamental concept in sustainable construction, viewing cities and towns as material stores for the future. This perspective transforms the construction industry, promoting responsible resource management, ecological preservation, and a resilient future.
Benefits of Material Reuse
Utilising recycled building materials significantly reduces waste in an industry known for its substantial contributions to the global waste stream. By salvaging and reusing materials, businesses can curtail their reliance on unsustainable methods such as landfill, thereby avoiding the associated costs and taxes, and promoting a circular economy model.
Incorporating recycled materials into construction projects, whether wholly or partially, yields energy efficiency gains. The energy required to process reclaimed materials is lower than that required for the extraction and production of new ones, resulting in reduced energy consumption and a lower carbon footprint.
By minimising energy consumption, projects employing recycled materials naturally emit fewer greenhouse gases. Given that approximately 11% of global carbon emissions are attributed to construction, such reductions are vital to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Opting for local providers of recycled building materials further reduces emissions associated with the transportation of materials.
Choosing recycled materials isn’t just environmentally responsible; it’s cost-effective. Contrary to the misconception that sustainability comes at a premium, recycled building materials are often more affordable than newly-mined ones. This cost efficiency extends to all phases of construction, from procurement to disposal.
Longevity and Durability
Making an eco-friendly choice doesn’t necessitate any compromise on the quality or integrity of construction materials. Recycled materials are often high-performing and at least comparable in durability to their non-recycled counterparts. Quality assurance measures and rigorous testing protocols are typically in place during the processing of recycled materials, ensuring that they meet and often exceed industry standards.
Regulations and Research
When it comes to sustainable construction and material reuse, regulatory and certification frameworks are pivotal in shaping industry practices. Combined with ongoing research and government initiatives, they promote resource efficiency, waste reduction, and carbon emissions mitigation in construction practices.
Although the UK’s planning policies promote sustainability, specific regulations targeting carbon emissions throughout a structure’s lifecycle are currently lacking. Eco-friendly developers are keenly anticipating future measures aimed at reducing carbon emissions in construction.
Notably, currently established mechanisms such as environmental product declarations (EPDs) certify deconstructed materials, making them suitable for reuse in new construction projects. This process effectively curtails waste, mitigates carbon emissions, and reduces the environmental impact.
The Interreg’s Facilitating the Circulation of Reclaimed Building Elements (FCRBE) initiative, funded by the European Commission, is actively promoting material reuse and sustainable construction. This research project aims to create an online directory cataloguing suppliers and operators working within the circular economy, and providing specifications for reclaimed products. The initiative also endorses a pre-demolition audit for reusable elements which can be assigned to new projects, intending to increase reclaimed material circulation in the region by up to 50% by 2032.
The Government’s Green Construction Board Taskforce’s 2021 Routemap to Zero Avoidable Waste in Construction outlines actions to minimise waste at different construction phases, with recommendations for pre-construction design, use of materials, and best practices for demolition.
The Aggregates Levy, dating from 2002, supports this. It incentivises the reuse of aggregate materials by imposing a flat rate tax for each ton of rock, sand, and gravel extracted. Meanwhile, the National Model Design Code set up in 2021 provides tools for embedding circular economy principles and environmental goals in planning.
In August 2023, the government updated its waste prevention programme, emphasising the £30 million National Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Research (NICER) Programme’s role in supporting circular economy research centres. These centres target material flows and aim to enhance the UK’s journey towards a resilient circular economy.
Through this programme, the government aims to collaborate with industry to explore policies encouraging construction product design for reuse and recycling. This may involve resource efficiency product standards or information schemes like Environmental Product Declarations to ensure product designs facilitate disassembly and reuse.
The Cabinet Office is championing green procurement through the National Procurement Policy Statement, emphasising emissions reduction in procurement processes. Additionally, the Cabinet Office Policy Procurement Note mandates Net Zero commitments for major government contract bidders by 2050.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has revised its Code of Practice for Sustainable Soil Use on Construction Sites, along with a soil reuse and storage depot scheme, aiming to prevent soil waste and promote reuse. A pilot of this scheme is planned for 2026.
Challenges to Material Reuse in Construction
Resistance to Change
One of the primary challenges to the circular economy in the realm of construction materials is resistance to change within the construction sector. The industry has traditionally followed linear models of “take, make, dispose,” and transitioning to a circular economy requires a fundamental shift in mindset and practices.
Clients and end-users also play a crucial role in influencing construction decisions. Their preferences for traditional designs and materials may impede the adoption of circular construction practices. Educating and aligning consumer behaviour with sustainable choices is a challenge that needs addressing.
Complex Supply Chains
The construction industry involves complex supply chains with numerous stakeholders, including architects, contractors, suppliers, and regulatory bodies. Coordinating these various actors to embrace circular practices can be daunting and requires collaboration, transparency, and standardisation.
The insurance market, building and fire regulations, manufacturers’ requirements, and evidence of maintenance and fire integrity, are just some of the criteria that add significant complications for consultants and contractors when trying to retain existing building components on projects.
Infrastructure and Logistics
Material reuse relies on efficient deconstruction, material recovery, and recycling processes. The lack of adequate infrastructure for these activities is becoming a significant roadblock. Proper facilities and technology for deconstruction and material sorting are essential but may be lacking in many regions.
Efficient transportation and logistics are likewise vital for the circular economy. Material reuse often involves moving materials from deconstruction sites to construction sites, and optimising this process for minimal environmental impact is a challenge.
Material Quality and Safety
Reclaimed materials can be an unknown quantity for developers who are used to assessing new materials. They need to ask whether recycled materials are going to last the years and meet the necessary safety standards.
Ensuring the safety and quality of reclaimed and recycled materials can be challenging. In response, the industry needs to develop robust quality control measures to guarantee that reused materials meet the necessary standards, including structural integrity and safety.
Many circular construction practices are at a small-scale or experimental stage. Material reclamation is already taking place on a smaller scale in the UK, often involving ‘boutique’ salvage companies providing access to salvaged materials for high-end reclamation and a heritage aesthetic.
However, in order to make a meaningful impact, these solutions need to be scaled up beyond singular specialist companies. This will require significant investment, research, and collaborative efforts between salvage companies, demolition firms and property developers.
Despite these challenges, the shift toward a circular economy in construction is gaining momentum. With industry collaboration, regulatory support, and technological advancements, these hurdles can be overcome, paving the way for a more sustainable and environmentally responsible construction sector.
Developers and property professionals are at the forefront of driving this transformative change, actively embracing and championing material reuse practices. Nevertheless, the resource-intensive nature of testing and regulating materials is a potential impediment to progress. The streamlining of these processes is of utmost importance to ensure the efficient implementation of material reuse within the sector.
The real estate market stands on the verge of significant transformation, as the adoption of material reuse gains prominence. This paradigm shift is an indispensable component in the larger goal of reducing carbon emissions and mitigating the environmental impacts stemming from construction activities.
By adopting material reuse, property professionals can not only enhance their eco-friendly credentials but also lead the way in this new era where sustainable real estate is an urgent necessity, not just an aspiration.