The Future of Plastic in the Construction Industry

min read time
2021-10-13 15:23:00

Back in November, all eyes were set on the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow as the world looked to see how climate change could be brought under control with measures implemented by the 200 countries that attended. Amongst the headline topics of debate on coal, cars, cash and trees, the subject of plastic usage was discussed.

Plastic has suddenly become more contentious in the face of increasing debate and action around sustainability and climate change, with a particular focus on single-use versus reusable plastic. Yet despite the positive environmental impact of eliminating this fossil fuel derivative, removing it immediately would present significant challenges for us all. To understand the scale of the challenge, look around the immediate environment that you’re in right now – whether it’s a room, a car or otherwise. Remove everything that’s plastic and see what’s left. It’s eye-opening, isn’t it?! Plastic is one of those materials that we’ve taken for granted for so long. Since 1907 in fact, when Belgian chemist Leo Baekland created Bakelite, the first synthetic, mass-produced plastic. The phones and laptops that we run our work and home lives from, our windows and doors, household appliances, packaging to keep our food fresh, and even the unseen underground pipework that delivers clean drinking water and carries our waste away – plastic in its various forms is the base material for the majority of these essentials.

So how do we make the best use of the plastic that we’ve already created within a circular recycling economy? Furthermore, how do we find the ideal ‘green’ alternative that retains all of the incredible properties of plastic to create the abundance of useful objects that we enjoy now – and is carbon net zero?

Plastic in Construction

Within our own industry, plastic is used extensively. The European construction sector uses some 10 million tonnes of plastic per year, which is a fifth of all plastic consumed by Europeans. It’s second only to packaging. From insulation and guttering to pipework and wiring, plastic is used across a wide and ever-growing variety of applications. With good reason too, as plastic has many unique features that are invaluable to the construction industry:

  • Corrosion resistance & durability deliver longevity

  • Safe & hygienic transportation of liquids, especially water

  • Highly effective cold & heat insulation

  • Low-cost raw material & production

  • Sustainability through recycling (we’ll come onto this in a moment!)

Add the fact that plastic is so easy to use, maintain and innovate with, and it’s clear to see why plastic has been one of the most beneficial substances to the progress of humanity for over a century.

That said, there’s a lot of plastic out there, and even if we had a green alternative that we could mass produce, we couldn’t just bury the 7.8 billion tonnes (source: Our World In Data) that are present globally in the ground and forget about it. So, we have a collective responsibility to make the best use of it.

Using the plastic we’ve got more wisely

The general consensus is that plastic as we use and abuse it now is unsustainable. Given that we currently produce 359 million tonnes of plastic each year worldwide (source: Plastics Europe), and more than half is for single-use items, then it’s clear to see that plastic presents us with a significant problem. The fact remains that plastic is almost indestructible, and yet we still discard so much of it on a worldwide scale, knowing that it has a hugely detrimental effect on the planet’s wellbeing – and it’s shamefully wasteful. For example, of the 319,082 tonnes of plastic packaging waste generated in Ireland in 2019, only 28% was recycled.

The central issue isn’t with plastic itself though. It’s with our one-directional economic model: goods are produced, consumed, and then disposed of. The model assumes that we can enjoy endless growth without consequence because we have endless resources. But we don’t, so in this model, it’s easy to see why plastic is seen as such a problem.

Nonetheless, with ingenuity, there are many ways to reuse plastic more wisely in a different lifecycle within the construction sector. In reality, recycled plastics have all the key properties for construction materials. They’re strong and durable. They’re lightweight and waterproof. They’re easy to mould. And they’re recyclable.

Focused on greener alternatives, manufacturers in the construction industry are already turning recycled plastic into durable, reliable, truly sustainable building materials. For example, award-winning ‘Recycore’ technology has been developed by plastic pipe systems producer Wavin, using 50% recycled plastic in its soil & drain pipes, whilst retaining all of the properties of its virgin plastic equivalent. Same performance, same quality, but a greener environment. Pushing the parameters further, the Wavin AquaCell range of geocellular stormwater management solutions is now manufactured from 100% recycled material.

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It’s an encouraging start, but there’s much more to be done collectively.

The main challenge is that the recycling of plastic waste is largely seen as being unworkable and unprofitable. Specifically, polymers such as mixed plastic, rubber and elastomer are condemned as ‘unrecyclable’. However, there’s a staggeringly large amount of these materials across the globe, and it continues to grow by the day. Wouldn’t it be amazing if they could be used to help society and the planet?

At the most basic ‘bricks & blocks’ level, building materials made from recycled plastics are not yet widely used in the construction industry; prototypes have mainly been used for demonstration installations. Hence, it takes sea changes such as political will and consumer demand to drive more investment into research & development.

The tide is beginning to turn though. There’s increasing pressure from society toward plastic pollution. Government and industry are engaged with the idea of a circular economy, potentially creating an opening in the market and a shift in people’s mindsets, with a view to welcoming recycled plastic solutions, along with other waste stream materials, as alternatives to conventional building materials.

The future is beginning to look very different indeed.

Looking to the future

The ability exists to ‘unmake’ all types of plastic, returning them to their oil stage, so that they can be reused again. But it requires an enormous amount of energy, and so it’s unlikely to eliminate all of the problems with plastic pollution. The sad fact is that with so much of it ending up in landfills and the environment, plastic will keep doing what it does, which is enduring.

In its comprehensive new document, Plastics Explained: Exploring the Key Topics, the British Plastics Federation (BPF) explains why plastic needs to be prized as a valuable resource that has a vital role in the drive to lower carbon emissions. Backed up by key facts & figures about the UK Plastics Industry, it outlines the role that plastic has to play in a sustainable future, focusing on the importance of improved recycling.plastics explained

The document suggests that the UK’s target of net zero emissions by 2050 isn’t possible without plastic. Essential for everything from insulation and lightweight vehicles to turbines, they’re often the best solution versus heavier alternatives that can require more resources to produce and result in increased emissions.

BPF Director General Philip Law states: “Everyone has a role to play in creating a more sustainable society, and the plastics industry obviously has a role too. It is constantly innovating to reduce its environmental impact. Plastic will play a key part in all our futures, as it is vital to reducing the UK’s carbon emissions.”

Beyond plastic, the future gets very interesting…

The scientific engineering community is exploring alternatives to traditional plastics such as polymers that occur naturally. For example, led by Jeffrey Catchmark, professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Penn State University, his team used cellulose and chitosan (derived from crustacean shells) to make waterproof coatings. Not only can they be composted and broken down in the environment, but they have additional benefits over plastic in that they can act as adhesives too.

Meanwhile, cellulose – made from plant polymer, is making a comeback in confectionary packaging via UK-based firm Futamura, after being side-lined by the cheaper plastic-based film.

This report may hone in on the key use of plastic within the UK and the role it will have to play in the search for net-carbon zero targets, but the same applies to Ireland, the rest of Europe and globally. We need to be smarter and more efficient in the way we use, re-use and recycle plastics. 

We wait with keen anticipation

Aside from the headliners of transport, energy and food, it’s going to be fascinating to see what global leaders, experts and scientists bring to the table for construction and the built environment at COP26.

Leading up to the event, Boris Johnson cast a shadow on plastic by claiming that recycling it doesn’t work. He was subsequently accused of ‘losing the plastics plot’ by the Recycling Association, completely conflicting with his own Government’s policy.

As things stand, we should have optimism about the promising new technology that’s in the pipeline to supersede plastic. That said, plastic remains too valuable as a wide-use material to be phased out any time soon. Inert and safe, plastic remains vital to society – way beyond our own industry, in everything from electronics to healthcare. But as we’re all too aware, misused it becomes at best an eyesore and at worst a threat to life.

So, our collective responsibility is just that – to collect as much plastic waste as possible to re-use it in a circular recycling economy. Everybody who uses plastic in their everyday lives is accountable, and that’s pretty much all of us as things stand in the absence of an alternative ‘magic wand’ solution.

As with just about everything related to sustainability, we need to work together with what we have in order to make it work, while the scientists, engineers and similar pioneers push on with their quest to find more sustainable carbon-zero alternatives. The time for action is right now.

As Anne Frank said, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”