Author Ashley Bateson

In the last 100 years plastic has gone from hero to villain, having a catalytic effect in transforming our buildings in the modern era. However, our industry needs to understand all the societal and environmental impacts to make more informed materials choices if we are to build a sustainable future.

With their remarkable versatility and affordability, plastics have revolutionised modern construction, underpinning technological advancements and societal progress. As an excellent insulator it enabled widespread electrification and became synonymous with the modern lifestyle through products such as the Bakelite radio, telephones and mobile devices. Plastic also helped to replace severely harmful materials such as asbestos insulation and lead pipes. However, plastic has now become so pervasive that we have sleepwalked into an environmental crisis. A plastic bag was recently found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, and microplastics have been found in snow samples in the death zone on Mount Everest.

Plastic consumption.

As we become more attuned to the sobering reality of single-use plastic consumption, there has been a public drive to reduce this which has resulted in initiatives such as the carrier bag charges implemented across Europe and UN continues its efforts to tighten plastic pollution laws.

Despite this pressure, global plastic production is predicted to double by 2050, and this is why we must look beyond single-use plastics. The construction industry directly accounts for 20% of plastic demand, and this is set to increase.

It is used in a variety of building elements including pipes, cables, seals, window frames, floor coverings, and thermal insulation. The longevity of plastic in buildings can be 25-35 years or so, and this creates problematic waste streams; especially when we consider building life cycles can be 60 years or more. We are also beginning to understand the health risks of plastics in buildings, especially when there are high levels of additives. The heavy reliance on plastics is also a barrier to the net zero carbon mission, with plastic production potentially becoming the most significant driver of oil demand globally as the energy sector decarbonises.

Recycling is often presented as a solution to the plastic crisis, but in practice this has some crucial limitations.

Due to the diversity of plastic types, it is difficult to sort and efficiently process waste streams. Many plastic types diminish in quality in the process, such as PVC, meaning that they can only be downcycled to inferior uses. As a result, recycled plastic is often more expensive to produce, severely impeding its uptake. While recycling should be promoted due to its ability to reduce waste and optimise plastic production, it does little to solve the consumption side of the problem.

Alternatives.

Alternative materials such as aluminium, glass and timber should be considered instead for some applications. Mineral wool is often a suitable low-carbon thermal insulation material compared to expanded polystyrene.  Timber window frames are a suitable alternative to PVC window frames, which are much more common in Europe. Clay drains can be a suitable alternative to plastic drainpipes and cast iron rainwater pipes can last much longer than plastic rainwater pipes, and are less prone to physical damage.

The hard truth is that the main reason for selecting plastic building materials is often short-termism, or prioritising lowest initial cost rather than taking a life-cycle perspective.

Sustainable materials can make sense with a long-term view, where the benefits of resilience, durability, ability for reuse and more efficient recycling loops come into play. Short-termism also obscures the negative externalities of waste, where the polluter pays principle often isn’t applied.

Conclusion.

To bend the plastics curve and remediate the carbon cost and plastic waste crises, we need to take holistic, systemic approaches that inherently reduce production and consumption. This will require making informed long-term decisions that account for the true cost of the materials we consume. Innovation can play a role, from new recycling processes, materials or circular ‘product as a service’ business models but a wider cultural shift to stewardship is needed to achieve a truly transformative effect that addresses consumption. It is only by recognising that the plastic crisis is so deeply engrained in society that we can begin to design an entirely new sustainable paradigm for the future.

Source: Hoare Lea

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