Waste regulations: re-using materials

Savings from waste

27 June 2016

David Inman looks at waste regulations and the potential to save billions of pounds by re-using materials

The historic rationale for a linear economy is to make, to use and to dispose.

However, society needs to keep materials in use for as long as possible before disposal to extract their maximum value, and then to recover and regenerate materials and products at the end of their serviceable lives. This process is known as the circular economy.

With an increasing global population leading to greater demand being placed on linear resources, material prices will rise and materials themselves become scarce.

Waste and the circular economy

The legal definition of 'waste' in the UK has been in place for over three decades and is now also embedded in EU law, but its application in waste management still prompts much debate.

Under the 2008 Waste Framework Directive (Directive 2008/98/EC), the legal definition of waste is: 'any substance or object which the holder discards or intends or is required to discard', and it is this intention to discard a substance or object that is at the heart of our legal requirements.

The definition is very important because the classification of substances as waste is central to waste management policy, which applies legal controls to protect both the environment and human health. The UK legal framework, while challenging in technical terms, is there to support the minimisation of waste and to offer such protection.

Waste stops being waste once it has been processed, recovered or disposed of in a legally permitted way. Until this point, producers and handlers have a legal duty that includes storing it safely and securely, holding a permit to do so or to treat, transport or dispose of it.

Applying these principles to the construction industry and the circular economy, waste can be regarded as a resource if a project’s waste management is properly planned and executed. If, on the other hand, waste is only considered later in the project’s timescale, this can often increase cost and the risk of legal issues from unforeseen problems.

The regulator for waste management in the UK varies by country: in England it is the Environment Agency, in Wales, Natural Resources Wales, in Scotland, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, and in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. The legal requirements in England and Wales are similar, as are those in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but all of them follow EU law.

In the most straightforward terms, if as a non-domestic waste producer you use waste as a resource or material, store it or dispose of it, you will need a legal exemption for activities determined to be lower in risk by the regulators, or an environmental permit for higher-risk or larger waste management activities. It is therefore sensible to consult environmental regulators as early as possible in a project.

The waste hierarchy

EU law requires that member states must apply a hierarchy that identifies waste management options and ranks them in order of environmental impact, as shown in Figure 1. The most sustainable and environmentally friendly option for waste management is to reduce the amount of waste being produced in the first place. This can be done through careful design and by looking into the use of alternative materials.

waste heirarchy

Figure 1: The waste hierarchy

Waste management is a key challenge for all organisations in terms of cost, resources and legal compliance. Robust waste management arrangements can help fulfil the legal duty of care and avoid prosecutions, in addition to saving money. The rising costs of waste management, including landfill tax, can result in increased financial pressure as well.

While legal compliance must be a priority, minimising the waste produced and diverting waste from landfill can save money. Landfill tax in the UK is £2.65 per tonne for non-contaminated inert waste and £84.40 per tonne for other wastes, including active or contaminated wastes, as of 1 April 2016 This is on top of haulage costs and the actual cost of landfilling. Diverting waste from landfill can save money, while materials arising from recycling or recovery can have a value in themselves.

The European perspective

The EU’s strategy for a circular economy aims to boost competitiveness, create jobs and generate sustainable growth by 'closing the loop'. The Union is providing €650m funding under the Horizon 2020 programme and €5.5bn to fund implementation.

The EU estimates that net savings for businesses from waste prevention, ecodesign, re-use and similar measures will be €600bn

As well as revising recycling and landfill targets, the current European Commission’s mandate is to:

  • halve food waste by 2030
  • develop quality standards or secondary raw materials
  • develop a working plan for ecodesign
  • revise agricultural regulations to allow greater use of organic and waste-based fertilisers
  • develop a strategy on plastics in the circular economy, addressing recyclability, biodegradability, the presence of hazardous substances in plastics and the Sustainable Development Goal for significantly reducing marine litter
  • agree a series of actions on water re-use, including a legislative proposal on minimum requirements for the re-use of wastewater.

Businesses and consumers can start the transition to a stronger and more circular economy by recycling more waste and re-using more materials. While maximum value should be extracted from raw materials, products and waste, increased benefits are also gained from saving energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The EU estimates that net savings for businesses from waste prevention, ecodesign, re-use and similar measures will be €600bn, or 8% of annual turnover, which will cut total annual greenhouse gas emissions by 2–4%.

Constructing a circular economy

To focus specifically on the built environment, construction waste – including demolition waste – represents one of the largest waste streams in Europe, totalling 500 million tonnes per year, equivalent to one tonne per person in the EU. Not only does this mean that traditional construction materials go to waste, other valuable materials are not always identified and recovered.

To address this, the European Commission aims to ensure recovery of valuable resources and also that adequate waste management processes are in place in the construction and demolition sector. It is thus developing pre-demolition guidelines to boost high-value recycling,while voluntary recycling protocols will be designed to improve quality assurance for recycled construction materials. At the end of life, buildings or infrastructure may be demolished or dismantled and materials re-used somewhere else, or they may be refurbished, so the most appropriate option must be considered in each case.

Demolition must be addressed in design as the by-products can create a useable material, and it should be ensured that there are no unhealthy or toxic materials in the building. This may seem like tomorrow’s problem – especially as some construction projects result in assets that will last for hundreds of years – but we must address it now.

There are many examples of projects that use recycled materials, and the subsequent structure can be recycled again with remaining elements being used for another project. Modular construction enables this, but again, the potential for doing so has to be identified during design.

Often, the most complex approach is adapting a building for another use, which may involve some demolition. But a good example of this is the former Rail House in Manchester, UK, a 1960s office block adjacent to Piccadilly Station used by British Rail. This had stood vacant for some time and suffered from dated design, poor thermal performance and asbestos contamination.

In 2010, however, the building was stripped back to its original concrete frame, on which a new office development was built; this has since won an 'Excellent' BREEAM rating. It is doubtful whether British Rail’s original architect considered that the concrete frame could be left in situ – but re-use of materials and building components is nevertheless one way to help create a circular economy.

David Inman FRICS is a chartered environmental surveyor at DIEM Ltd

Further information

  • Related competencies include Sustainability
  • This feature is taken from the RICS Land journal (May/June 2016)