Specifying sustainably

Architects should take a more considered approach to the origins of the plastic products in their specification, says Jon Chamberlain, Sales Director at Marshall-Tufflex. Here, he looks at the cable management industry in particular and the wider argument for an increased focus on the plastics you choose.

In our personal lives, reducing waste, single use plastic and recycling has become part of the daily ritual and is now second nature to most. But the construction industry’s approach to waste is lagging behind, even with government targets in place to reduce waste and carbon emissions. The UK construction sector is the largest consumer of natural resources and produces more than a third of the UK’s annual waste, with 25 million tonnes disposed at landfill.

WRAP’s waste hierarchy helps to provide some focus to combat the problem. Whilst aimed at construction SME’s, the principles should be adopted where possible, throughout the supply chain.

  • Reduce – the amount of waste created.
  • Reuse – materials where possible.
  • Recycle – if it cannot be reused, then recycle.
  • Dispose – a last resort.

Perhaps architects are hesitant to promote use of using products with recycled content. It’s a common misconception that PVC-U products manufactured with recycled materials are lower quality, more expensive and ultimately less robust than products made from virgin materials. However, dig a little deeper into what is available on the market and it is clear that this is simply not always the case.

In the cable management sector for example, the recycled PVC-U content Marshall-Tufflex uses for its cable trunking and conduit is sourced from off-cuts from PVC-U window production and post-consumer waste from PVC-U windows removed from buildings at the end of their lives. As PVC-U frames are manufactured using a superior grade of plastic designed to withstand the elements, when processed for conduit and cable trunking or other PVC-U products, the material holds the same properties, resulting in a high quality, robust product that will not discolour or fade.

In line with WRAP’s hierarchy, by reusing waste window frame material, this reduces the amount of waste going to landfill. For their part, Marshall-Tufflex’s range includes 80% recycled material with some products reaching 100% without any impact on cost or on quality. This prevents the equivalent in weight of 300 double decker buses of PVC-U going to landfill every year.

With an ambition to make a significant impact on the environmental performance of the cable management sector, the company is therefore calling on competitors to also adopt the same principles and have the industry move towards using at least 50% recycled material in manufacturing processes by 2028.

Of course, manufacturers are far more likely to respond and change manufacturing processes depending on demand – and architects and specifiers can have a huge influence. Compared to the timber sector, where a stipulation that timber must be from managed forests is included in the majority of specifications as standard, there currently seems to be no such consideration for the sustainability credentials for plastic. Yet, the benefits of specifiers taking a closer look at the origin of the plastic materials they choose are significant – with a move towards a more circular economy surely the ideal.

Afterall, the benefits aren’t just restricted to waste. Research from the Sustainable Industrial Systems group at the University of Manchester showed, for example, that a PVC-U window manufactured using recycled content has between 17 and 20 times less embodied carbon than those manufactured from virgin plastic.

It is therefore clear to see that there is huge value in writing tighter specifications for plastic products wherever possible. Of course, legislation and government targets help to drive this approach, but unless the client specifies the requirement for an environmentally considered approach, the circular options are often overlooked.

Therefore, increasing demand for recycled material is an important factor in helping to change the industry and the procurement drive toward improved waste performance and adoption of recycled materials.

Buildings are far too often simply knocked down with the construction and demolition waste going straight to landfill. The mind-set of the entire industry needs to change and take immediate action to adopt a circular economy approach at all levels of construction. Unless architects and specifiers fully embrace products and materials that use recycled material by providing a specification that is sufficiently detailed, we won’t see the significant change that needs to happen.