Recycling is fundamental to an environmentally stable planet, yet despite people being acutely aware of the importance of recycling materials in their daily lives, less focus has been put on industries to adopt similar practices.

In March, Global Recycling Day was observed, and although many organisations made commitments to improve their practices, very few tangible results were achieved. It is critical that more sectors move from pledging change to action, making recycling an integral part of working practices.

This is particularly the case in the construction industry. It is one of the UK’s biggest consumers of new materials and has a huge reliance on plastic. In fact, the construction industry is responsible for almost a quarter (23%) of the UK’s total consumption of plastic.

The construction industry is also the largest contributor to waste, according to Defra, UK construction, demolition and excavation made up nearly two-third (61%) of all waste generated. This is three times higher than industrial waste and five times higher than household waste, much of which unfortunately gets sent on to landfill.

It may therefore not come as a complete surprise that 40% of the plastics used by the construction industry gets landfilled. Part of the problem is a culture of using cheap materials costing the planet, other is a lack of scrap collection and recycling infrastructure.

Across the industry a diverse array of materials is used, from metals, to asphalt, concrete, glass, wood, paper, and plastic, many of which showcasing great potential for recycling, yet the harsh reality is that once on site, they’re not.

The problem doesn’t just stem from construction’s love for cheap disposable materials and cost savings, but also a lack of accountability being enforced when it comes to recycling.

The principal conversation in recycling however firmly remains on plastic recycling. Despite there being a large amount of press around the research and future potential of recycling plastic, presently, of the 8.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastic produced worldwide, only 9% has been recycled.

Unfortunately, it often isn’t recycled because the process is both expensive and complicated that is both crude and energy intensive. At the end of the plastics recycling process, you are left with a lower quality, weaker plastic polymer than you started off with, meaning recycling has a detrimental effect on the quality of recycled plastics.

So, what is happening to the 91% of virgin plastics that aren’t being recycled around the world? 40% is said to end up in landfill, and it’s estimated that by 2050, 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste will be sitting in landfills. All of these tonnes of plastic will be contributing to the pollution of the surrounding natural environments. To give some context, in 2015, the amount of plastic in landfills was close to 4.9 billion tonnes.

Another shocking statistic is that 19% of virgin plastic is simply dumped. Britain is being criticised for dumping in Malaysia, with a Greenpeace investigation from last year finding evidence of illegal dumping. After further inspection these materials were found to include recycling collection bags from three London councils.

The idea of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ may sound cliché, but the harsh reality is that we must look toward materials that offer more for the planet both in its first use and in its second, third and hundredth.

Take copper, commonly used in piping as an example, it has a full scrap collection and circular recycling infrastructure in place, is a good example of this type of sustainable material, which can be used again and again. Recycling copper, in comparison to mining the raw material, uses 85% less energy and there is less demand for mining because needs for copper are being met by recycling old material.

In Europe around half of the demand for copper, and about a third of global demand for copper is being met by recycling. This is evidence of one material’s sustainable, circular economy, further proven by the fact that 65% of all copper that has ever been mined is still in circulation or available to use today.

Copper is far from the only material where benefits of recycling could be gained. Reusing construction materials not only reduce the waste but lower the cost of transportation, and the cost from landfill tax. A green image is of course also especially important in an era where homeowners and businesses are valuing green construction.

Efficient material usage, limiting need for virgin materials and selecting ones with a circular economy and a consideration to planet is a great place to start, increasing the industry’s demand for more sustainable, recycled materials.

The construction sector as a whole is responsible for putting better working practices in place taking steps towards limiting the amount of waste created, and end of life recycling will ultimately see everyone benefit.

Andrew Surtees is the co-founder of Copper Sustainability Partnership

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