How green is the demolition sector when it comes to waste?

Written by: Claire Col | Published:
Special Report

With so much demolition arisings produced by the construction and demolition sectors, their recycling practices are inevitably under the spotlight. Claire Col takes the industry pulse from its trade body

The UK Green Building Council estimates that the construction and demolition sectors create around 120 million tonnes of arisings annually; said to constitute around one third of all waste in the UK. No surprise then that the sectors are coming under increasing pressure to reuse these materials.

The National Federation of Demolition Contractors (NFDC), founded in 1941 with the purpose of improving the industry, says it monitors best practice while representing the interests of its members who, in order to qualify for its quality mark, must adhere to the body's guidelines.

The NFDC says it is committed to maximising recycling, in line with UK and EU laws and guidelines, through its code of conduct and training. Indeed, Howard Button, NFDC's chief executive, says the body and its members take the issue very seriously.

"Demolition work can be a one-stop shop for recycling, as every single piece of structure and concrete has to leave the site, and the more savvy the contractor, the more it will re-use to maximise value and minimise landfill," he explains.

However, he admits there are no easy answers to the question of material disposal, and companies will often be working on an uneven playing field when it comes to how they price projects: "There will always be companies that do not believe in recycling and will cut corners on this issue," he admits.

The scrap collapse

Despite the above statement, Button insists that the construction and demolition industries have traditionally led the way on recycling.

"Recycling and recovery of material is an on-going issue for our industry and we've always tried to recycle as much as possible. With concrete, we were one of the first to look at mobile crushers to go around on sites to reduce cost of landfill, and this is now left on site to re-use according to the WRAP protocol," he says.

The NFDC claims that its members regularly achieve an impressive recycling rate of 96%. This includes all materials and is measured by weight.

Moreover for the construction and demolition sectors, there can be significant profit in recycling, with valuable metals selling for high prices, for example.

However, with commodity prices fluctuating, sometimes you get good value, and sometimes you don't. Button, though, remains optimistic of a recovery in scrap metal prices, which have fallen in recent years.

"It's picking up, but the [old] prices are hard to achieve now," states Button, referring particularly to copper and steel – crucial components in the construction and demolition recycling chain.

Indeed, this time last year, a ton of steel was sold for $370 (£246); now it would fetch about $305 (£203), while copper has dropped by around $800 (£533) in the space of 12 months.

In April 2014, copper prices were $6,750 (£4,445) and this April they are $6,000 (£3,950). This is having a significant impact.

Button explains: "If a contractor is demolishing a building, nine times out of 10 there will be some steel and non-ferrous scrap and they have to make due allowance for that in their contract bid. However, our contractors might have priced a job last year when the price was buoyant, and now steel's dropping like a stone so they're losing a big percentage of their margin."

If this continues, it could have an adverse effect: "We might even see a couple of the larger contractors go. Some companies on big contracts are even stockpiling the steel, but that can only be done for so long. As soon as the demolition is finished, the client will want the site back, unless you've got a really cooperative client who lets you leave it there for a certain time, but there are not many of those."

The slump in scrap prices has been prompted by a global drop in demand – China and Turkey, traditionally strong markets, are buying less, and Button says the problem is a worldwide one.

He explains: "Our American cousins say it's diabolical over there too. We've had a bit of an upturn in contracting work in the UK so we are seeing more of the issues but, in Europe, they say there's no work going on and they blame the scrap prices for that."

So is there some light at the end of the tunnel?

The NFDC would like to think so, but remains cautious. "I'm hoping we've hit the bottom, and prices will now go up – but there's little confidence from scrap merchants that this will happen," ends the chief executive.

The green demolition contractor

Founded in 1967, London-based Cantillon is a company that is reported to have recently become known as the only recognised 'green' demolition contractor.

John Rimmer, Cantillon's head of safety and sustainability, explains: "Demolishing even a basic office building can produce a number of different materials – all of which, in an ideal world, Cantillon would like to see recycled or reused.

"While we have worked on one project where 100% of all materials were recycled, the reality on a day-to-day basis is more like 95-98% which is still an impressive figure by many standards."

However, this is only really achieved when all parties involved are willing participants.

It takes a little more time on the part of the demolition company to segregate the materials at the demolition – or, more accurately, 'deconstruction' – phase.

This in turn requires clients to be prepared to pay for a contractor that is environmentally aware. "The demolition contractor then has to be prepared to work in partnership with hauliers, transfer stations and waste recycling centres to ensure that materials coming off demolition sites are disposed of responsibly. Not rocket science, maybe, but you would be surprised how difficult it can be to achieve," comments Rimmer.

Cantillon works with recycling centres, hauliers and transfer stations and, through this network, the company says it ensures the highest possible rates of recycling.

Recently, Cantillon, representing the NFDC, has been involved in a pan-European research group looking at ways to recycle gypsum-based products such as plasterboard with foil backing. Gypsum is a sedimentary rock and a finite item.

"In theory, this product can be endlessly recycled to make the same produce again and again, or turned into fertilisers or bedding for cattle," says Rimmer.

However, the main problem is the lack of facilities to undertake this process so this 'gypsum to gypsum' project is looking into the financial viability and the technical feasibility of incorporating a lot of recycled material into gypsum products.

"It's early days, but we know it can be done, though it will probably have to go to legislation for it to be forced, and that's up to the European Commission," predicts the head of safety and sustainability. RWW

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