Waste…what is it good for?

9th March 2017

By Gerald Morgan, Pre-Construction Director

One Man’s junk is another man’s treasure…

A business ethos of a bygone era or a fundamental element of economics on which a resource efficient, circular future, can be built?

Speaking as a construction logistics professional who is often engaged with main contractors and their ever increasing demands for better and cheaper answers to their site waste challenges, the idea that we are making bucket loads of cash from the sale of waste has never been further from the truth than it is today. And in my humble opinion there lies the greatest indicator of where the whole circular economy falls short… If there isn’t a market, there isn’t an economy.

I have spent many hours pondering how the industry can improve its waste performance and discussing the challenges of sustainable construction with likeminded professionals from the world of construction logistics and invariably we always seem to come to the same conclusion. The fact is that the position we find ourselves in we don’t really have a say.

So where do we start? It is difficult to know where to look for guidance because this is a subject that requires input from every sector of every industry from strategic policy makers at a global level to ordinary people like you and me.

But to try to make some sense of where we are, we first have to take a look and try to decipher what waste is!

Such is the complexity of waste management on the 21st century, back in 2012 DEFRA released a guidance document to help businesses and other organisations understand whether a material is waste or not. The document titled ‘Legal Definition of Waste’ is fifty-nine pages long (sixty-nine if you include the Annex)

In a nutshell… “A material is considered to be waste when the producer or holder discards it, intends to discard it, or is required to discard it.” (hmmm, that reminds me, I must get round to checking the legality of reusing site hoardings…)

The description goes on to then open the door to the circular economy…

When assessing whether a material is waste or not, discarding doesn’t simply mean throwing away or getting rid of something. Discarding also covers activities and operations such as recycling and recovery operations, which put waste material back to good use.

So what do the waste management sector have to say about the circular economy? Well in 2014 CIWM published a report ‘The Circular Economy: what does it mean for the waste and resource management sector?’ A pretty fundamental question bearing in mind that the CIWM members are effectively the brokers supplying the very materials that go on to feed a circular industry.

The report was compiled with the help of more than 600 industry professionals responding to a survey in which only 27% of respondents saying they are carrying out even a modest level of planning for the circular economy and suggested that the term ‘Circular Economy’ was little more than a rebrand of existing guidance that lacks any new substance or leadership beyond the Ellen MacArthur Foundation or WRAP.

I have every respect for the work these institutions do, but from their advisory positions their hands are tied. They are not policy makers, they don’t hold the purse strings and they don’t set the rules.

In Richard Dawkins book The Magic of Reality there is a great description of how the moon orbits the earth. He describes the moon as a cannon ball being fired from a mountain so hard that it falls off the edge of the planet, it keeps on falling and continuing to fall all the way round the world and thus stays in orbit. There’s a lesson there. The circular economy needs a similar propulsion in order to reach its orbit and find its perpetual motion. Strong leadership from outside of industry firing the economy into orbit and letting industry fall into place is what it’s going to take.

With the amount of commodities that go into construction and the volume of waste generated we should be under no illusion that this industry has a huge part to play in the Circular Economy and it’s through material selection and the design process where fundamental decisions need to be made.

All eyes therefore are on Brussels’ current negotiations on the EU’s Circular Economy Package and of course the question then being whether the government uphold their pledge and pass the resulting EU legislation into UK law. Will Brussels be lighting the touch paper that sends the circular economy into orbit? We can only wait and see.

In the meantime, businesses just like ours will remain squashed somewhere in the middle of the waste hierarchy trying to do our best with whatever detritus is thrown our way and hoping that ‘where there’s muck there’s money’.