Paving the way to circularity
31 October 2023
Achieving net zero by 2050 often seems nothing more than a pipe dream, as carbon emissions from construction in Europe continue to rise.
Nevertheless, there is a growing number of companies aiming to demonstrate that turning to more environmental practices can be good business.
Construction Europe sat down with Steve Bennett, managing director of recycled plastic experts Dura Products, to discuss the growing interest in the use of ‘green’ products – and the real price of ‘going green’.
Who is driving the use of recycled materials? Is the push coming from governments or is it more a pull from the market?
I can only speak for roads and infrastructure, but the standards finally are starting to move towards sustainability, towards more recycled material.
And governments, I think, have changed.
This time, 20 years ago, it was completely different. Now they’re putting things in place and, from a regulatory perspective, the UK government, Irish government, EU governments have said ‘we’ll set this in stone’.
But primarily it’s the clients. We’ve just completed our first carbon zero McDonald’s restaurant, and we supplied the kerbs for that, which obviously reduced the carbon on the project.
It’s clients like McDonald’s and major construction companies – the first with that environmental badge on their mission statement, saying ‘we want to build with as little environmental impact as possible’.
Now it’s starting to filter down to the contractors and we’re getting to a stage where it’s also filtering down to the installers, because everybody has to be on board.
Also, with sustainable products, recycled products, you’re bringing efficiency to the products and to the systems that you use. And efficiency means money; it means saving money.
Of course, if you’ve got to have a target, you’ve got to have a point of measure first to get to that target.
It’s really only now that we’re seeing big engineering companies having their own departments that are looking at this across every aspect. It’s good to see.
Everything has to be built to standard in Europe. Is that a challenge for companies looking to use recycled materials?
The thing is, it’s right to have a standard for a 5km road. But if it’s underwater because of the climate events we’re having now, then it’s not really worth keeping to standards as they are; it’s better to innovate.
It’s a balance thing. If everybody gets on board, then you can really start to make a difference.
I think we’ve got to shout a bit louder, but I see it happening and I am quite positive for the future.
We are seeing a completely different reaction from local authorities than we did, perhaps even three or four years ago.
Of course, you won’t hit a target if you don’t measure.
LCAs and EPDs [lifecycle assessments and environmental product declarations], they’re all there to give you a measure. So you can measure a design and see the environmental impact.
It’s also there to give you a point of measurement for improvement.
There might be a time when we achieve less than carbon zero. How that works, I don’t know, but if you can hit zero, then you can hit minus 10.
Can products like yours compete on price, or is it only the need to reduce carbon that leads to sales?
We’re not just throwing plastic in the oceans anymore, because companies like Veolia and MTM Borealis want to buy it. We and other companies like ours have created a demand for it.
In fact, if we made our product out of virgin plastic, it would probably be half the price, purely because virgin plastic is cheaper and easier to get.
One of our products is a standard kerb. It’s made of recycled plastic, which is expensive and now a commodity. It’s an essential thing that we need to do, but it can cost two or three times more to process than mined natural resources.
You’re paying a premium for reclaiming that plastic, controlling it, reprocessing it and remaking it.
Our drainage systems are a lot more complex, so the material cost isn’t reflected [in the total cost] anywhere near as much as it would be in a standard kerb.
So there we can match the market. In the last five years, since we launched the drainage system, we have 20 times more turnover than the kerb product – despite its 88% recycled material content so cost in terms of £’s is still a major factor in product choice.
But if you can match the market rate – and there’s plenty of companies out there that can match the market rate, using high recycled or waste content – then it’s a no-brainer.
But I think we’ll come to a point where contractors will win projects, not because they are the cheapest, but because they offer the client a better package for the environment.
Of course, once money starts being made, then it starts to work, because, unfortunately, money drives everything.
Are you positive about the direction we’re heading in, regarding the use of recycled materials?
When we first started, we just made our products from bottle tops and bottle caps and closures; that’s all that was being recycled at that time.
Now they can be made from car bumpers and flexibles to some degree. As long as we get it in a bead, we can use it – we have to have a particular recipe and strength.
We use polyethylene and polypropylene, which we don’t burn. We just heat it and melt it and then you can reuse it.
It’s about knowledge and balance, but I think we’ll get to a point where 80% of plastics could be reused.
The recycling industry has developed and, today, probably 50 to 60% of the recycled plastic that we didn’t used to do anything with, we now can. That’s because the industry’s got better and we’ve created a demand.