Cycling and Recycling

  • Building Design Expert
  • 8 years ago

There’s Cycling and there’s Recycling

Cycling is what happens as a result of manufacture. Recycling? – well, that happens consequentially, but not all of the time.

It has become a supreme marketing ploy, to promote materials and products as ultimately recyclable. It’s not just building products either. Try checking out the marketing copy for a car, a bike or a piece of furniture; in terms of recyclable content. Why? because the ‘Eco’ ticket is worth big money.

I will not take away the well meaning planet saving credentials that manufacturers present. Of course we need them all, and more. However, I will just throw in a large spoonful of cynicism, and stir to taste! Because, recycling of materials such as plasterboard and insulation products carry with them an undeniable caveat that they must be free from contamination. Very difficult to achieve on a construction site as you might imagine.

There is much claimed over the recyclability of glass wool and polystyrene insulation, but manufacturing processes dictate it only remains recyclable before it has left the factory gates. They unfortunately don’t want it back from the building site. Plasterboard is an interesting one too. Gypsum as a material is highly recyclable, but again it must be clean. There is an added complication that it has been illegal to send it to landfill mixed with biodegradable materials since 2005. The discovery of the production of Hydrogen Sulphide, a particularly toxic, an potentially explosive gas (the stuff of school boy stink bombs) put paid to any other treatment. So any recycling is going to require significant care, and attention to detail.

Pursue any construction recycling thread and you will see figures of up to 85% of all construction site materials could be recycled. Indeed the the BREEAM projects that are dotted up and down the UK at present lead the way in this regard, and probably better. Zero waste to landfill is a remarkable achievement, but put simply, it is the application of a management system that enables it to happen; no silver bullets.

The government seem to remain comfortable just to periodically hike up the land fill tax, based upon the misconception that this must force the industry to adopt the more more economic route that is just maybe recycling. This is just another of the government’s armoury of intensely blunt instruments that just has enough teeth to excavate a hole in the sand to accommodate several heads. In reality where the contractor has no outside, or self inflicted responsibility to do so there remains an unfortunate tendency to pass the costs to the developer. They will get the costs regardless, but ANOTHER on-site management system. Please.

Coated Metals

Buildings do not have a design life, only their components do. Right?

So many hectares of coated steel roofs are currently waring very thin, and losing their looks as a result. It was always going to happen. Their aluminium and zinc cousins (copper and lead too, for a more complete list) are fairing far better, and will prove to be so much more recyclable. The price, we know, is a greater upfront cost to the developer, and unless they are responsible for the full building lifecycle, it is unlikely they will care.

Note to the ministry: Building life cycles to be underwritten by developer –

That would risk impacting development, on the back of impacting specification, so perhaps no direct winners.

Steel is clearly very recyclable. But coated steel presents a different problem. Plastisol in particular, if melted down will produce toxins, so the coating has to separated from the base material in another way, usually involving a caustic solution and an intrinsic degree of care.

This begs the question that should building designers take responsibility for a more recyclable materials specification? Should manufacturers be offering more recyclable products? The case for the former, or latter is negated if the client does not see, and will not pay for the ecological benefits.

Note to the ministry: Tax on toxin production as a result of recycling in thirty years time. –

Because, yes, in thirty years time, maybe much less, we will be looking to recycle every ounce of metal going. Technology will have advanced for sure, but of course we can only guess on what fronts.

So you have just bought your new Rolls Royce? Yeah right. Okay, stay with me. because Rolls Royce, along with all the other big players promote their wares inclusive of around 95 – 100% recyclability. So yes everything can be recycled at a price, but it is in the manufacturers best interest to do it legally, cost effectively, and such that it does not shade the bottom line of the balance sheet. But what your average Rolls Royce buyer may be immune to is the number of vehicles produced with a finite lifespan as test products. So that’s a relief then; the ones sacrificed for the greater good will have a minimal effect upon the eco-sphere. We can therefore look forward to multiple lifetimes service from our actual purchase. As long as we stringently maintain the moving parts, and keep everything clean this car will still be serving our great grand kids.

It is an unfortunate cleft stick that can catch any building designer. Because, yes, with resolute cleaning and maintenance there is no reason why our buildings should not last several lifetimes. The picture is skewed when a change in ownership, planning policy and, or economic conditions determine the land use, or building type is no longer optimal for current and future needs. What is clean, fresh and innovative today, may be next decade’s relic and monument to the past.


As we live and breath redevelopment is never going away. A building design mindset that says constituent material recyclability doesn’t matter will require jam jar bottom glasses just to read the specification, and see little else. Not all developers are heathens, and not all building designers are saints. It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world. We cannot be sure we have the time for development cycling to get into sync with development recycling without a legislative prod.

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