Construction has a plastics problem

4 min read

The construction sector has a plastic problem. 

The ‘great Pacific garbage patch’ is a huge area of marine debris and plastic waste that sits in the centre of the Pacific Ocean. Microscopic particles of plastic waste, caught in the ocean currents, enter the food chain and cause significant damage.  

In total, more than 300 million tonnes of plastic waste now litter the world’s oceans, killing animals, poisoning entire food chains and risking disruption and decline of the delicate ecosystem that supports so much life across the globe. 

But what does a mound of plastic in the Pacific Ocean have to do with a construction site in London, or a new road being built in New Delhi? 

It turns out the answer is: ‘quite a lot.’

Construction is the second largest producer of single use plastics in the UK, beaten only by the packaging industry. 

Every day, on construction sites all over the world, plastic waste is generated from a huge number of activities and far too little of it is recycled. 

That waste builds up in waste transfer sites or gets shipped overseas, and then plastic wrapping – originally used to ship cladding from Hamburg to London – ultimately can end up floating in the oceans and threatening marine life. 

That’s not to say all plastics are bad. 

In fact, as concerns about plastic waste become more mainstream, we need to be careful with our messaging; particularly across the long tail of our supply chain. 

Plastic itself isn’t bad – we need it! The use of plastic has helped revolutionise modern medicine and food hygiene.  

The construction sector also benefits hugely from use of durable plastic products such as insulation, flooring, and of course mastic. 

We rely on plastic packaging materials to keep our supplies protected and dry during transport and storage. That isn’t likely to change in the short term. 

What needs to develop is a new mind-set across our workforces, proactive and empowered to identify unsustainable uses of plastics; or opportunities to significantly reduce waste. 

Modular and offsite construction, for example, offer a huge opportunity to change the way we use materials and reduce the waste we generate. 

Even smaller objects, like drinking water cups, can have a huge cumulative impact and so offer a way to leverage genuine impact by making small changes. 

On our construction sites alone we use tens of millions of plastic water and coffee cups a year. 

If we can change employee behaviour here – by careful interventions and providing alternative options – we can show people the power they have to make other positive changes. 

The last two years have seen a huge shift in public opinion, and that means that plastic reduction represents a fantastic opportunity to leverage for the wider sustainability agenda.  

Across Mace, our staff are more engaged and driven than ever around single use plastic reduction. 

Whether it is introducing a branded ‘KeepCup’ or offering volunteering days to pick up plastic waste at the beach, it is clear from the response we receive to our plastics initiatives that this is an issue people are highly motivated to take part in. 

That’s why we have recently launched a single use plastic reduction campaign across the business, called ‘Time to Act’, which encourages people to ditch unnecessary plastics. 

We hope the campaign will have a huge impact on our amount of plastic waste – and that it will help our people to join other dots. 

We hope that it will encourage them to spot other opportunities where a responsible business can reduce waste, improve sustainability outcomes and ultimately deliver a big benefit to the bottom line of the business. 

So far, to date, we have already reduced our corporate plastic consumption by more than 50%; a process that has included phasing out all uses of disposable plastics entirely from our head office in London. 

But we and our suppliers cannot deliver this change alone – it has to be a cross-industry effort. 

Behaviour change on this scale is hard, but if we want to deliver construction that doesn’t unduly damage either the local environment or habitats elsewhere in the world, we need a wholesale attitude shift. 

It appears that plastic waste might be the key to unlocking that change – which is why I believe we are faced with a huge opportunity. The question is – can we grasp it? 

An abridged version of this article was first published by Construction News

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