Noose tightens on commercial waste

Copyright: David Lawson – published Property Week June 2007

Focus on operating property at the greenest possible level has overshadowed the shockingly inefficient way many buildings are produced. Domestic waste has hogged the headlines yet businesses produce 10 times as much, with construction a major villain, generating a fifth of the UK total.  But the noose is tightening. The industry has only a couple more weeks to comment on proposals for site waste management plans [SWMPs] which will impose draconian restrictions next year. Tighter controls will emerge even sooner, however, and catch many developers by surprise.

   A new stage of the EU Landfill Directive comes into force in October demanding that all waste is tested before it can leave a site. This could have a big impact on the cost of developing brownfield sites, according to environmental engineer Card Geotechnics.

  Big contractors are well aware of the blitz of paperwork and potential for delays but cost consultant John Rowan & Partners revealed widespread ignorance among smaller operators that make up 90% of the industry. Developers and investors also have a blind spot for anything which involves getting fingernails dirty. But the most routine scheme could be locked down for months if unexpected problems emerge or complex new rules are broken.  

   Tough new controls might not be required if more attention had been paid to a tradition of inefficiency.  Around £1bn was wasted building 190,000 new homes in 2004/05, according to a study by the Building Research Establishment and AEA Technology. Better management would have saved more than £200m - around £1,000 per house – at no extra cost.  It has been estimated that 13m tonnes of waste is generated every year simply because of over ordering. Construction giant Skanska found subcontractors assumed wastage rate for drylining at 10% on some big projects but actually threw away one sheet of plasterboard in four. More careful monitoring enabled the firm to increase recycling from 40% to 80%.  Simons Construction estimates it has saved £28/tonne just by segregating site waste on site and anticipates this will rise to £57/tonne in the near future.

  In most cases there will be no choice from October but to separate and categorize waste and this will produce more potential potholes than a fleet of JCBs. Definitions of waste will widen and even moving material around sites could pose a problem. This may require registration for a waste management licence, which could blight sites in the eyes of suspicious buyers or tenants.  The potential for mistakes interpreting the new rules could finally drive developers to demand earlier involvement by professional advisers. As the pendulum shifts to regeneration of brownfield land, few big firms will approach any site without a risk assessment and continuous watching brief from environmental engineers.

 But as the Rowan investigation revealed, smaller contractors are likely to slip up, so shocks could emerge when an increasingly enthusiastic army of Environment Agency inspectors trawls the country enforcing this tough regime.

  Energy labels will produce a rush of renovation for buildings exposed as power guzzlers. But how green will this be?  Around half of all construction waste comes from renovation, repair and maintenance but doing this sustainably is more difficult than demolition, where materials can be re-used, according to interiors specialist Overbury.  The firm spent three months on a study funded by the government-backed Waste and Resources Action Programme [WRAP] attempting to recycle 108 tonnes of plasterboard from 12 sites in central London. It found this cost £20/tonne more than sending to landfill but with a more streamlined system, it should be possible to reduce that to around £10/tonne.

  Overbury suggests that ceiling tiles, another common waste, could be sold at a discount or leased to a landlord/developer for initial Category A fitout in the same way as furniture is rented for show homes. The problem is there is no system to cope with the volume of material that would need to be collected, recycled and redistributed. Waste companies cannot usually afford to invest the capital to manage this extra waste without knowing how much extra material to expect.  And with no systems in place to measure refurbishment waste, there is no way to predict an accurate figure.  Developers could have a major impact by moving away from initial ‘Cat A’ fitouts, as tenants invariably strip much of this out when they move in. Overbury suggests: