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Plastic angels and demons

Kris Karslake Kris Karslake 25 Mar 2019

Plastic: that wonder material. It can be flexible, rigid, clear or coloured, is hygienic and weather proof, and has a very long lifespan. But here lies the problem. It’s a material designed for longevity, but often used just once. And we’re using more and more of it, creating a growing problem: plastic waste.

Just think – every piece of plastic you have ever used is still out there, somewhere. Plastic does not degrade, it simply breaks up into smaller pieces. This plastic, known as microplastic, is hard to see, which makes it hard to measure its true abundance and impact (especially in our oceans).

This was something that Emily Penn, founder of the Exxpedition voyages, spoke about when she kicked off the Alliance of Sustainable Building Products’ (ASBP) annual conference and expo. This year’s topic was Plastics in construction: issues, impacts and alternatives. BAM was lucky enough to be invited to present, and I thought it would be an excellent way to highlight both the innovations happening across construction sites, but also the challenges along the way.

Through all the talks I got a wider appreciation about the problems, and benefits, of plastic. I found out about the ‘hidden’ problem of nurdles. If you haven’t heard of them, they’re the small nuggets of plastic that are shipped to manufacturers to be made into products. Jasper Hamlet, Project Officer, FIDRA, spoke more about the Great Global Nurdle hunt, which is proving that plastic nurdles are polluting our oceans before they have even become a product to be used!

Dr. Stephanie Wright, Research Associate, King's College London, took us through the health effects of plastics, in particular, microplastics. You may have read the news that plastic is being found in shellfish, well you’ll be pleased to hear that this is actually less than the amount of microplastic that already falls onto your plate from the air while you are eating. And that’s not a health problem, is it? The truth is, we don’t really know yet. Whether or not plastics are harmful in themselves, we do know they are very good at transporting other, harmful substances. So the jury is still out.

At the end of the day, Scott Pearce, Operational Policy and Development, Kent Fire and Rescue Service; and Professor Anna Stec, Fire Chemistry and Toxicity, University of Central Lancashire, provided details about how plastic in modern buildings can create toxic smoke when burnt. One of Anna’s conclusions was that flame retardants found in UK furniture (such as polyurethane foams) actually increases smoke toxicity more than they reduce fire growth rate - certainly worth considering when purchasing furniture in the future.

But onto construction in particular. One of the most encouraging things I took from the day was that companies from across the supply chain see plastic as a priority issue.

Ben Humphries, Director, Architype, set out the case for alternatives to PVC. He highlighted a study about the toxic effect of chemicals released from PVC, and shared an archived (but still accessible at time of publishing) list of alternatives to PVC building materials. Architype believe in using natural building products, and regularly refer to the UEA Enterprise Centre, which is a beacon of a low carbon, natural and local material development at a larger scale.

Professor Sean Smith, Director of Sustainable Construction, Edinburgh Napier University, talked about plastic free products within the industry (such as long-lasting timber windows) and the challenges we face. In particular, I was interested in the idea that in our quest for plastic alternatives, we must be careful not to create new problems. He gave an example of the Azrap refugee camp, which was built in preparation to take in refugees. It aimed to create a better environment for people, having learnt from previous experiences, but the metal houses in the camp suffer from very hot summer temperatures, and there is also a lack of electricity and soaring food prices. Making the camp almost inhabitable.

This example of unintended consequences rings true to me. One example would be pallets - timber pallets may seem like the more sustainable option compared to plastic one. But plastic pallerts are technically recyclable, lighter, more durable and stronger – so are they better? It depends. Are plastic pallets reused to their full potential? And at the end of their life, are they actually recycled? A full lifecycle study needs to be done to answer this, or perhaps the answer to the problem of pallet waste lies not in the material of the pallet, but the pallet itself. Could offsite construction do away with the need for most pallets anyway?

A full lifecycle study needs to be done to determine which is really better: wood or plastic pallets 

I also talked about the fact that people really care about this issue. At BAM, we had a great response to last year’s World Environment Day, which was themed around single use plastic, and is something echoed by Martin Gettings, Group Head of Sustainability, Canary Wharf Group PLC., when he spoke of the successful engagement that started a wider behavioural change within the micro-city environment that is Canary Wharf Group.

From my perspective. There are clearly things we could be ‘doing better’ in our current system to ensure plastic stays in closed loops, and isn’t released into the environment. As Gary Newman (Executive Chair, ASBP) concluded on the day, plastic shouldn’t be demonised - used in the right closed loop system it may well be the best currently available material on the market. And alternatives may result in a series of other unintended negative consequences. (ASBP is setting up a plastics working group, get in touch with them if you would like to find out more.) But everyone agrees that there is a real need to do new things if we are to achieve the wide-scale adoption of innovative processes and materials, and remove and replace unnecessary plastic from our lives. 


Kris Karslake is a Sustainabailty Manager at BAM Construct UK

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