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The Impact of Concrete on Global Sustainability

In 2013 a BRANZ report estimated that in Auckland alone, around 30,000 cubic metres of wet concrete, mostly over-ordered surplus, had to be disposed of to landfill – and this figure has been increasing steadily since then. 

Worldwide, the global construction industry most likely pours enough concrete in a single day to fill China’s Three Gorges Dam, according to a Guardian article in 2020. 

What these statistics point to is that we must all do better if we are serious about sustainability within the wider construction industry. But the question is, how?

The issue with ‘sustainable construction’ 

Sustainability is an increasingly important consideration for all asset owners, engineers, and construction companies. With construction producing just over 20% of New Zealand’s carbon emissions, and 40-50% of total waste, there are significant opportunities to improve sustainability within the sector.

The challenge with sustainability is that it means different things to different people, and it’s often associated with added cost or increased complexity. This situation is further complicated by well-meaning political, regulatory and social initiatives which actually create more roadblocks to its implementation.

As a result the market is littered with conflicting advice and systems for implementing sustainability. But there is a way to cut through this complexity, by focusing on practical ways to make your projects more sustainable and understanding how to tap into the circular economy.

What is the circular economy? 

The circular economy is about using resources more efficiently. This allows asset owners, engineers and construction companies to deliver high-quality structures in a cost-effective and sustainable way.

Some examples of how Envirocon demonstrate the circular economy approach include: 

  • Upcycling by-products of the old, linear economy, and turning it into usable precast concrete products.
  • Using great design to create products that deliver unique benefits for the industry.
  • Benefits include faster installation to deliver lower labour costs, with strength and durability grounded in traditional engineering principles. These in turn deliver safety and structural integrity outcomes, and flexibility to modify the structure as your business evolves, thus maximising resource efficiency.
  • Looking to the end of a structure’s life, how a product can be non-destructively dismantled and reused over and over again.

Why sustainability is important to you

In a world of increasing populations and finite resources, sustainability is crucial for continued growth and the benefits it brings for humanity. This reality sits at the heart of the international shift to more sustainable outcomes.

A recent feature piece in the Guardian newspaper neatly sums up the benefits and environmental challenges that construction, specifically concrete, has on the economy and environment.

“The material is the foundation of modern development, putting roofs over the heads of billions, fortifying our defenses against natural disaster and providing a structure for healthcare, education, transport, energy and industry.

Concrete is how we try to tame nature. Our slabs protect us from the elements. They keep the rain from our heads, the cold from our bones and the mud from our feet. But they also entomb vast tracts of fertile soil, constipate rivers, choke habitats and – acting as a rock-hard second skin – desensitising us from what is happening outside our urban fortresses.

Our blue and green world is becoming greyer by the second. By one calculation, we may have already passed the point where concrete outweighs the combined carbon mass of every tree, bush and shrub on the planet. Our built environment is, in these terms, outgrowing the natural one.”

Within New Zealand, two core factors, in addition to social pressure, will increasingly drive demand for sustainable construction. The first is our Paris Climate Agreement commitments.

The second is political consensus that our waste management framework needs to drive more efficient use of resources.

So the message is clear – knowledge of the sustainability challenge, and the tools available to meet this challenge, are essential for every influencer within the construction industry.

The regulatory drivers you need to know aboutReducing our carbon footprint

In 2019, the New Zealand Parliament passed the Zero Carbon Act. The Act establishes our commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement into law. It requires the government to implement policies that will contribute to neutral greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The practical effect of this is that every aspect of regulated life will change over time to meet these commitments.

Specific to the construction sector is a commitment by all parties to reduce the carbon footprint of cement by 16% by 2030. It’s a significant challenge. The result is changes to the building performance system – the Building Act and corresponding Building Code.

In 2020 the Ministry for Building, Innovation, and Employment (MBIE) launched a major review and consultation process on these changes under the banner ‘Building for Climate Change”.

MBIE describes the changes as:

The Building for Climate Change programme has been set up to get us building in a completely different way. Tackling the climate change challenge will require vision, commitment and perseverance as well as significant change. It won’t be done overnight and it won’t be easy.

We’ll be setting targets around energy use and carbon emissions that focus on getting New Zealand where it needs to be. At the start, we should be able to reach the goals through good current practice, but over time, the goals will be increased to make greater carbon savings and emissions reductions. To meet the goals, we’ll need to make some changes to current building laws – both the Building Act and the Building Code.

The impact on building in New Zealand will be far reaching and demands we all change our approach;

Once the programme is in place, energy efficiency and carbon emissions will become core considerations when building – just as important as cost and design Reusing buildings and recycling materials will be an important part of the building process as well, and we’ll work with local suppliers so they’ll be able to gear up and support these product streams.

Ministry for Building, Innovation and Employment 2020

Government regulations to help us reduce waste are not new.

  • Reducing our waste footprint

In 2008, the New Zealand Parliament passed the Waste Minimisation Act. This Act heralded a major shift in the way we handle waste, from dumping it in landfill to emphasising waste reduction and product stewardship.

The first decade of the Act represented a ‘light touch’ approach to regulation. This changed in 2017 with the government taking a more active approach through mandating product stewardship, and increasing waste taxes.

In 2020 the waste disposal levy of $10 per tonne only applied to municipal landfills that take household waste. It will increase the levy to $60 per tonne by 2024.

The Ministry will also introduce new levies for different types of landfill. One of these is a construction and demolition landfill levy of $20 per tonne in 2022, rising to $30 per tonne in 2024.

At the heart of these actions is a focus on moving the country towards a more circular economy.

How you respond matters

These two regulatory initiatives represent the most significant change in the construction industry in 30 years. Asset owners, developers, engineers, and construction companies have the opportunity to gain a competitive advantage in the way we respond.

We believe a practical sustainability approach that boosts efficiency and lowers lifetime costs provides the best answer.

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