It’s no secret that our world has gone through rapid and significant transformation in the last few years. The environment is dramatically changing and it’s evident. With recent floods and bushfires, environmental catastrophe can make us feel hopeless. However, it’s important for businesses to understand the significant role that they can play to help create meaningful environmental change.

In the context of the construction industry, the circular economy approach is one of the simplest and most effective ways that companies can go about environmental transformation. A circular economy is a mode of production which engages reused, repaired, and recycled existing materials and commodities for as long as possible. In PwC’s “Building a more circular Australia” report, it’s noted that integrating a circular approach during the construction process allows for maximum utilisation of building materials, limited resources used, and most importantly, significantly decreases waste.

According to the latest data in the National Waste Report, Australia generated 27 million tonnes of waste from the construction and demolition sector alone in 2018 and 2019. The report, which measures waste omitted by construction, also shows that the sector generated 61 per cent more waste in 2018 and 2019 when compared to data from 2006 and 2007. 

Meanwhile, the Australian Bureau of Statistics highlighted that the construction industry generated 16.8 per cent of Australia’s waste in 2018 and 2019, making it the second highest waste generating industry in the country. An expensive feat too, with the data revealing that the construction industry spent $2 billion on waste collection, treatment, and disposal services in 2018 and 2019. 

Waste contains a gas harmful to the environment called methane. If waste is not managed properly, it turns up in landfill and releases methane, which exacerbates climate change. The construction industry therefore has a significant duty to minimise waste in our nation. It’s crucial that the sector looks to decrease the level of waste produced nationally and drive a greater level of environmental management, impact prevention, and sustainable practices.

Can’t re-use? Recycle.

Contrary to what you might be thinking, construction companies can’t just implement a recycling scheme and call it a day. Meaningful change to the waste journey means using recycling as the first of many steps to creating a more sustainable industry. Truly, the greatest benefit for the environment comes when companies use and take less natural resources in the first place. 

Materials that can’t be reused should be recycled as a last resort before waste. When construction companies have to utilise natural resources, it’s crucial that they’re putting it back into the environment. When it comes to building materials, generally 90 per cent of demolition waste can be recycled. The easiest include timber, steel, concrete, and plaster, all of which are set up in plants or waste centres as they’ve been recycled for years. Same goes for metals, glass, masonry, cardboard/plastic packaging, fluorescent lighting tubes, and electrical cabling.

Builder Barriers

On the flip side, difficult materials to recycle naturally are hazardous products, which include asbestos and lead-based paint, and items such as food waste, mixed plastic, aerosols, and solvents. Other materials that are difficult to recycle – simply because there is not enough demand to – include floor finishes, plastic laminated, synthetic mineral fibre, and reconstituted timber products. The absence of demand subsequently means a lack of waste management centres. This creates a barrier for construction companies that may be looking to sustainably eliminate these types of material waste.

Additional barriers that builders must overcome to implement sustainable building practices include convenience and market demand. 

Sustainable material development often involves experimenting with the latest technologies and various waste management services. These efforts ensure the greatest benefit for the business, industry, economy, and ultimately, the environment. This can mean more planning and time is required, adding to the design phase of a project and ensuring that a circular economy approach is integrated. 

The future of sustainable construction 

While it’s clear that there are barriers for sustainable waste management, it is exciting that the industry is shifting to include legal and moral expectations for large construction powerhouses through to small businesses. There are also abundant benefits to businesses who follow these models. Environmentally responsible businesses attract and retain environmentally conscious employees and like-minded clients, leading to eco-innovation. Reducing, reusing, and recycling can also be cost-effective, saving businesses from paying disposal and landfill fees.

When it comes to recycling, it’s important for construction and demolition decision makers to pay attention to the latest techniques, technologies, and best practices in order to decrease waste generated. 

There are three main principles when it comes to waste: eliminate, circulate, and regenerate.

1. Eliminate

The first step is to eliminate waste and pollution during the design phase. The design phase is one of the most fundamental moments where building companies can introduce a sustainable construction approach. This includes looking at how long the building and materials can last, what can be created and then reshaped overtime and reused, how the building can be deconstructed if needed, and how the project interacts with the world around it. 

2. Circulate

Second is to circulate products and materials. The circular economy via waste recycle has already been active in the building sector. For instance, a lot of masonry, metals, glass, and timber are already commonly recycled and reused across construction sites. However, construction companies need to emphasise and integrate this principle so that it stays at the top of mind when engaging in new projects. 

3. Regenerate

The third and final principle is to regenerate nature. To design and build with the consideration of every product and its contents should be at the forefront of the industry. Before starting on a project, construction companies should think twice about whether the products and materials that it chooses to utilise can be regenerated for a new purpose. Businesses should also consider their level of difficulty to be recycled. For instance, timber is environmentally-friendly as it can be regenerated into mulch and animal bedding, while vinyl floor finishes are generally difficult to recycle due to its chemical composition. 


Phil Smith is the Group Executive for Environment, Health, Safety, and Quality at SHAPE Australia. Phil has over 30 years of experience in the construction industry and his core experience is focused on commercial low-rise construction, commercial fitout, and refurbishment projects. Phil has a Diploma of Work Health and Safety, a Certificate IV in both Occupational Health  and Safety (OHS) and Construction, and is a registered builder.

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