Waste – data puts property sector on notice
Demolition site in Newtown, Sydney. photo: Chris Chesher

The latest National Waste Report was released this month, and the data shows a worrying trend for the property sector. Construction and demolition (C&D) waste outweighed municipal waste and organics and came in equal with commercial and industrial waste at 20.4 megatonnes each in 2016-17. 

Masonry products from the C&D sector were the single largest type of waste across all waste streams – a whopping 17.1 megatonnes in 2016-17.

Even more worrying, the data showed C&D waste has been growing at the rate of two per cent a year, this despite all the publicity over recent years.

There is clearly a need for more action, and perhaps a change of paradigm around materials. The key might be product stewardship, something that has been the subject of a long-running government inquiry as part of a broader revamp of national waste policy,

Product stewardship expert and co-founder of the newly-established eWaste Watch Institute, John Gertsakis, told The Fifth Estate the Product Stewardship Act Review has “gone very quiet”.

“It is causing some frustration and disappointment among key stakeholders,” he says.

While it is “a bit of a worry it is taking so long” he remains optimistic.

In the bigger picture, Gertsakis says that circular economy is not just about waste and materials recycling, ultimately it is a tool for designing and manufacturing products differently. The goal is to achieve a small footprint for the entire lifecycle, not just manage the waste better.

Currently, the majority of circular economy and product stewardship efforts have focused on small products – mobile phones, laptops, refrigerants, cans of paint, TVs and DVD players.

But Gertsakis believes that one of the most effective ways to address the massive problem of construction and demolition waste would be to extend producer responsibility to the building scale.

‘It is just a really big product,” he says.

Too easy to blame consumers

It has been “convenient” for some sectors for the focus to be on consumers and consumer products such as straws and plastic shopping bags. 

“It is too easy to lay it on the consumer.

“We need a stronger extended developer responsibility approach.”

The volume of waste is after all filling up our landfills.

Gertsakis says there is a parallel in the extended producer responsibility around larger products such as vehicles. 

It is rare for an entire end-of-life car to go straight to landfill, instead, wreckers yards around the country do a roaring trade in giving old parts new lives in repairing and maintaining vehicles still on the road.

There is a need for the right regulatory settings to make developers and builders responsible for the materials in a building at the end of its life, and for extended producer responsibility for each item and material.

“They we would think differently about how they are designed and put together,” Gertsakis says.

There are precedents. The multi-award winning Macquarie University Incubator, for example, has been designed specifically for de-assembly and re-use of all building elements.

It’s possible to fully recycle an entire building

When Boroondara City Council had the Camberwell Library and Council Offices redeveloped by Abigroup in 2012, Bernie Leen Demolition Contractors was called in to literally deconstruct the existing building parts slated for demolition piece by piece so that the majority of materials including parquetry, brick, steel beams, plumbing fixtures, structural timbers, carpet, mineral fibre ceiling tiles and metal studs could be re-used or recycled.

The magic ingredients of this approach include demolition trades contractors, as people who know how to put things together are also experts at carefully pulling them apart and time.

The Fifth Estate has heard that there are tonnes of structural hardwoods and other re-useable timbers going to landfill from the demolition of detached dwellings to make way for multi-res developments simply because it takes two days to smash a house with a bulldozer and clear the site, and it takes up to four days to carefully pull it apart and send the reuseable materials on for a second life. 

It is almost mindboggling that two days is seen as taking too long -–except there is still a culture where landfill is seen as a valid end-point and the waste of the materials is not accounted for beyond the line item of tip levy fees.

Unfinished business

 This year saw the release of the first stage of the new National Waste Policy, and Gertsakis says stage two is expected out next year.

The second stage will cover the detail around implementation, financing and action.

Ideally, this stage will include “everything to do with circular economy in a practical way.”

Currently, Gertsakis says a lot of circular economy claims are simply “rebranded recycling”.

What he hopes we will see is a genuine wholistic approach as governments at all levels and industry get serious about closing the loop and transitioning to a low-carbon economy.

“There needs to be an economy-wide approach,” he says.

For inspiration, Australia can look to the European Union, which has over the past year laid the groundwork for sweeping cross-sectoral and cross-agency reforms to assist with a low-waste, low-carbon transition.

The EU has been expressing some concerns over its ability to meet its 2020 environmental goals and is calling for a ramp-up of efforts across both industry and its member states.

“The ‘grow now, clean up later’ economic model that dominates our world and which does not account for climate change, pollution or the degradation of our natural capital is unsustainable,” Hans Bruyninckx, European Environment Agency executive director says in a recent statement.

“Europe needs to urgently step up efforts to transform its key systems of production and consumption towards sustainability.” 

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