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Waste Reduction

Clean up the construction industry

Australia is among the ten worst countries in the OECD for solid waste generation. Construction is the leading contributor to our national waste pile, with a third of it being (potentially recyclable) junk.

In 2001, the Department of Environmental Heritage named Australia as the country with the largest amount of solid waste. The Productivity Commission has found, more recently, that Australia’s recycling rate of 35% is much lower than the other OECD nations. Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands recycle respectively 61, 60, 56 and 56 percent of their waste.

In 2006-2007, the construction and demolition industry accounted for over a third (43,8 million tonnes) of Australia’s waste. Around 43 percent of construction and demolition debris (most of which was building rubble) went to landfill.

The industry is slow to adopt the new paradigms for environmental sustainability. In a 2003 survey of the top 100 companies, the construction and building material sector was found to be one of the worst in the world at accounting for sustainability and environmental issues. Only 9 percent of the construction companies surveyed had separate non-financial reporting; the industry average was 23%.

Eco-efficiency is more than just reducing waste. These principles can be applied to the construction, renovation, and design of buildings by construction companies. Eco-efficiency also has significant social and health benefits.

The industry benefits most from sustainability and from the ability to deliver buildings and services more efficiently and at lower costs.

The most obvious way to reduce waste is to focus on practical building procurement processes to reduce waste and to increase resource and energy efficiency. By reusing and recycling building materials, for example, it is possible to reduce the environmental footprint of buildings through improved eco-efficiency principles. There is less waste to be disposed of and fewer resources used.

By using waste materials from existing buildings, you can reduce the need for new products and materials. The manufacturing and transportation of materials heavily influence the life-cycle energy of buildings. Reducing this energy consumption will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the carbon footprint of buildings.

Second, the building industry must make a “cultural change” to ecological sustainability by re-conceptualizing waste (including that from outside of the industry), and focusing on waste minimisation practices and zero waste throughout the entire life cycle of the procurement of buildings. Culture and behaviours of procurement teams, such as financiers, legal advisers, clients and architects, can influence waste management practices. Education, training, support, and information structures in the industry can help change cultures and behaviors.

If clients do not understand the value of reusing products or have a negative view of recycling, then this will affect the behavior of the construction and procurement team. The efforts to change the culture must not only focus on procurement teams but also clients and the public.

Thirdly, the construction industry could be legally required to adopt ‘zero waste’ practices. The planning and regulatory requirements must be updated. The current Building Code of Australia, for example, does not encourage recycled materials in building. Introduce or increase landfill levies and taxes and provide reuse subsidies to improve recycling and reduce waste. Another important step would be to require sorting bins on construction sites for recycling, possibly backed up by government funding.

Studies have shown that construction firms are not under enough pressure to change their behavior. In the past, contractors were primarily responsible for legal obligations. However, recent research has shown that mandatory measures are needed to ensure all project stakeholders take an active part and share responsibility in waste reduction and control.

The University of South Australia will soon begin a joint research project with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany, and Shenzhen University, China. It is called ‘Reconsidering Sustainability in Building and Design: Using a Cultural Change Approach.’ The project will examine these issues in depth and develop a model of best practices for industry. The research will create a path to move building procurement teams away from their current levels of knowledge and practices and towards best international approach and waste elimination. The project seeks collaborators to assist with research and consultation (see the author’s profile page for more details).

The recent climate disasters in Australia and the collapse of US subprime housing, which triggered the Global Financial Crisis, warn that society will pay a price if it does not pay enough attention to social, economic, and environmental sustainability. The construction industry must adapt and play a part in this cultural shift.

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Jane S. King

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