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Green homes – can the construction & development industry be plastic-free?

Despite the focus in the last year being mostly on coronavirus and Brexit, environmental issues and sustainability have remained high on the news agenda.

But how has the pandemic affected the progress of those seeking to make the construction and development sectors fully plastic-free and more sustainable?

And is a plastic-free property world really a realistic option or just a wild pipe dream?


Here, PIT checks in with Dr Wendy Jones, Science Engagement Lead at Changing Streams – a not-for-profit organisation founded by Liverpool-based entrepreneur Neal Maxwell to rid the construction industry of plastic – for her thoughts on a plastic-free future, the impact of Covid-19 and the increasing importance of sustainability in the sector.

How much progress has been made by the development/construction/investment sectors to reduce plastic or go plastic-free? And what more could be done?  

We are aware from conversations with a number of companies across the construction sector that there is a growing awareness of the problems caused by plastic waste, but also concern that changes could be costly.

Some companies already have programmes in place with ‘site champions’ to address issues of plastic waste. Consultancy and construction firm Mace, for example, is one of several firms to set itself targets for reducing plastics, through its ‘Time to Act’ campaign.

In conjunction with clients and the company’s supply chain, Mace has measures on its sites to reduce single-use plastics, including using reusable shoe covers, a closed-loop system for protective plastic sheeting, and a trial of reusable skip liners for concrete washouts.

There are also some initiatives to reuse offcuts or surplus materials, for example Recipro, which works with suppliers and contractors to donate unwanted, surplus building materials which they sell on at hugely discounted rates.

Some smaller contractors and designers are aware of the problems caused by plastic and would be keen to offer solutions to their clients, but at present there is no easy way of sourcing sustainable and economically viable alternatives. Ultimately, new standards and policies will be needed which will need the buy-in of politicians as well as industry leaders.         

At Changing Streams, we firmly believe in the profit for purpose principles. We would like to see all developers committing to plastic reduction in the same way they are committing to carbon reduction, as the two are inextricably linked therefore it is impossible to have one without the other.

To do this, we ask developers to join us as members and embed our Charter into their client requirement documentation.

Brokers also need to be aware of the shifting landscape in the market as we head to net zero carbon emissions with government and local government targets. All stakeholders in the built environment will have their roles to play in this. You cannot solve the climate crisis unless you address the plastic pandemic.

To address the problem, policy change will be needed at industry and government level. We hope to develop a cross-party alliance to address this alongside the drive to a low carbon economy. 

Our aim is to ensure these things are not mutually exclusive. As we head towards our ambition to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, we need to be mindful that we should not be achieving these targets by increasing the amount of plastic as this also has a significant environmental impact. What is needed, therefore, is for us to recognise and help establish a link between carbon pollution and plastic pollution.

Further details of relevant law and legislation in place to reduce plastic and packaging waste is outlined in the Considerate Constructors scheme, Best Practise Hub. The 25-Year Environmental Plan (25-YEP) outlines the government’s ambition to minimise waste. It states that the government are working towards a target of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042.

Has the pandemic helped or hindered this progress?  

During Covid-19, people have awoken to nature and are finally realising how important it is we work with and not against it. Notwithstanding some of the great initiatives that are already happening around the world, including the Paris Agreement, global governments and corporations are now faced with a challenge like nothing we have ever seen before. Bouncing back from virtual economic destruction.

In my opinion I would like to see them bringing the environment to the front and centre of all activities. Doing this will address the social, economic, and environmental issues we face. Building back better and greener needs to be more than a buzzword - the time for words is over, the time for action has come.

We have a very limited window to respond and reverse the current trend. If we do it right then green jobs will be created, the economy will boom again (we are already seeing large finance houses moving away from fossil fuels and into greener bonds) and the world will become a healthier, cleaner place.

For the first time in the history of humankind, we have seen a global collaborative effort to respond to the Covid-19 crisis. It has touched every corner of the world and brought together scientists, government and industrial leaders and many others to find a solution.

And what a resounding success this has been as we now have a vaccine being deployed. We need to look at what we have learnt and address the devastating impact on the environment with the same level of urgency and attention. We are only one part of this cog; nobody has all the answers but the proof of collaboration to make something good again is there to see.

We covered Changing Streams last October - have there been any major developments or wins since then?  

In less than two years, Changing Streams has achieved a great deal, but the highlights include the launch of the membership programme at the end of 2020, which was a huge success and is picking up speed, as well as the development of our Charter.

Some of our most recent partners and supporters include one of the UK’s largest housing providers, Your Housing Group. Your Housing Group recently enrolled as part of its ongoing mission to create sustainable communities across the country. The company has committed to working with us over the coming years and pledged to reduce its plastic usage across all areas of the business.

Measures will include simple swap-outs, such as changing fixtures and fittings; reducing the use of plastic wrapping for building materials, such as bricks and cladding; as well as more complex long-term strategies to phase out materials containing plastic.

The Changing Streams Research Centre is actively pursuing research and innovation into the development and use of sustainable alternatives which represent a significant reduction in plastic. 

Your Housing Group is also looking to embed the Changing Streams Charter across the ambitious programme of new housing developments it is currently rolling out across the country. It is hoped that all new contractors will adhere to its plastic reduction pledge before being appointed.

This will ensure positive changes cascade throughout the supply chain, including contractors, suppliers and manufacturers, which will help drive change at every level of the construction process.

Changing Streams also recently partnered with Arup’s Liverpool office. The partnership will bring together Arup’s sustainability experts and Changing Stream’s researchers to identify where sustainable plastic-free alternatives can be used in the construction industry’s supply chain to help the sector tackle its plastic problem.

The teams will also explore circular economy principles to ensure that existing materials are being repurposed and reused when plastic use is unavoidable, reducing the amount of new plastics going into the system.

As well as partnership, we are also continuing to expand the team with some excellent new additions, such as Amanda Keetley, founder of Less Plastic and Dr Stephen Finnegan, the director of the Zero Carbon Research Institute (ZCRI), a multidisciplinary research and consultancy group that works in partnership with the University of Liverpool.

We are also continuing to talk to a number of companies, research organisations and innovators and are optimistic that 2021 will see exciting developments.   

Is a plastic-free construction/development industry a realistic possibility? And by what date might this be realistic

Due to the complexity and enormity of the problem, it is not possible to guarantee this. Plastic is so much a part of our modern buildings that it would take a very long time to replace all of it, and indeed we should not ignore the fact that the various plastics in use today have excellent and specific properties, e.g., insulating, waterproofing.

To ‘swap out’ for plastic-free alternatives will require that these are sustainable and economically viable, but at Changing Streams we do believe that in the first instance plastic use and waste could be significantly reduced without major cost implications, and we will work with innovators and thought leaders in the industry to introduce alternatives wherever possible.

Our ambition is to significantly reduce the amount of plastic used in the construction sector. We have developed a multi-faceted approach to achieve this which includes research and data collection, educational engagement, and behavioural changes.

Has the pandemic, and the focus this has brought on the environment with less cars on the roads, planes in the sky, and cruises in the sea, helped companies to consider their environmental responsibilities more? Or has it taken a backseat as firms try to manage and cope with Covid? 

The feedback we are getting from the construction sector is that in general there is a will to ‘build back better’. As explained above it has helped in creating global awareness of nature and the importance of protecting her, as well as demonstrating that the world can come together in a global collaborative effort to tackle major problems.

We need to address the environmental crisis with the same level of collaboration, urgency and attention.

*You can find out more about Changing Streams and its Charter here.

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    I'm curious to know how we will build houses without electrical insulation on the wires and how we will distribute and collect water? I really don't want to see metal guttering ever again. How will our kitchens work? Our abundant supply of floor coverings are mostly plastic. Wool is a bit of a luxury so that will be out of order.

    Most of our clothes are plastic of some sort, so are modern cars.

    Plastics are not the main polution, it is the whole house on the land it's building has destroyed.

    We would do better to insist that houses have a 150yr service life without structural repairs being needed and if they are the council planning group pays for them for passing the original work.

    I can dream can' I?


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