Building a circular economy with timber

How do we evaluate the true cost of waste? And if we look beyond steel and bricks, can building materials such as timber help create a truly circular economy? A panel discussion at the recent Footprint+ exhibition, featuring TDUK Sustainability Director Charlie Law, investigated.

Recycling and the circular economy was a key focus of discussion at Footprint+, where TDUK Sustainability Director Charlie Law joined Timothy Clement, Head of Carbon & Environmental at Morgan Sindall, and Simon-Joe Portal from Drees & Sommer, to explore the progress being made across the industry.

Timothy began by defining the circular economy as working to keep materials “at their highest value and the highest utility for as long as possible”, with no net negative impact on the environment.

Charlie Law (left, pictured with TDUK’s Jonathan Gutierrez) attended Footprint+ to answer questions on sustainability

Charlie agreed, adding: “A lot of people think a circular economy is just a closed-loop recycling scheme, but that should really be the last resort. It’s much more than just the waste hierarchy. We should be looking at increasing the value of that product and keeping it at the highest value for as long as we possibly can.”

Simon acknowledged that a circular economy shouldn’t just be looking at how many times a particular product can be reused, but also about exploring the fundamental principles that enable a material, or the components within a building, to be reused forever.

The ‘elephant in the room’ when it comes to the circular economy is what happens during the construction stage itself, when dealing with site operations and issues such as site wastage, parts damage, over ordering and packaging. When you consider the number of skips being used at construction sites all over the UK across a typical year, a significant amount of building material is made only to be thrown away almost immediately.

Timothy said: “We have to do something about it, this is not going to go away overnight. We’re always going to have some elements of site waste to deal with, but there are quite a few routes already available to deal with this waste. There’s a misconception in the industry that you can put everything in the skip, and someone else will sort it out responsibly. But really, most of that waste gets incinerated, not recycled, so it’s not the best option.”

He went on to list companies who will take back and recycle unused products that have been purchased from them, as well as other ways in which some building materials, such as aluminium, insulation offcuts, timber and packaging can be dismantled and turned into other products.

“All these things are available on every project,” he said. “Most board manufacturers will take back boards and put them back into the manufacturing process. Paint manufacturers will take back tins. A number of vinyl manufacturers have formed an initiative that will take back vinyl flooring, re-manufacture and re-purpose it.

“So, all of that is possible, but it doesn’t happen on every site. And because every existing building is unique, there’s no off-the-shelf solution that will work for every application. Instead, you need the tenacity and creativity of the project team, often driven by the client, or the planning authority, to make sure it happens.”

Look beyond closed-loop recycling

As well as being a director of TDUK, Charlie Law is also Head of Construction and ESG at The Pallet LOOP, a circular economy pallet supplier.

Charlie said: “In terms of keeping building materials at their highest value for as long as possible, a lot of the options that currently exist are actually recycling. Yes, they’re closed loop, which is better, but we do need to be looking at other options.

Image © The Office Group. Using engineered timber means a building’s constituent parts can be detached and reused

“If you look at timber pallets as an example, we manufacture 20m pallets in the UK each year and over 90% of them end up in a skip as waste and are often then turned into biomass or animal bedding. That’s probably costing the industry up to £150m pounds a year, which is a massive cost for the industry.

“The Pallet LOOP is an absolute reuse scheme, which is trying to get manufacturers to swap from using existing single-use pallets to multi-use pallets, and there’s a logistics service in place to help with that.

“A lot of the timber that’s used to make single-use pallets is sourced from Scotland, while the pallets are mainly used in the south and south-east of England. So, we’re moving that timber a long distance, which again incurs a cost. Whereas if you keep that pallet in a short cycle with local repair hubs, where it can be taken to be checked and repaired where necessary, before going back to the manufacturer, you’re reducing that transport distance, which brings real resource, money and carbon savings. And there are a lot of other options as well.”

Charlie continued by urging delegates to consider the bigger picture in terms of how whole buildings can be made circular, drawing attention to the recent ABBA Arena building, which is fully demountable and can be dismantled and shipped to different locations to be rebuilt.

He said: “There’s no reason why that building can’t last for decades if not hundreds of years. The timber in it will last that long if you treat it right. There are a lot of misconceptions around timber, but as long as the building is protected properly, a timber building will last for hundreds of years. Just go and look at some of the buildings in our older cities, there are timber framed houses that are already 500 years old.

“We should be designing buildings so that the structural systems can be dismantled and moved to another location, and there is already work taking place in the timber industry to create timber frames that can be taken down and moved, and to consider recycling as a last resort.”

Charlie called this cascade recycling – keeping materials at their highest value for as long as possible, for example using timber repeatedly as a structural material, and only when it can’t be reused, cycling it down and reusing it in a different way. He said: “There are projects currently looking at taking timber from old houses and turning it into cross-laminated timber and glulam – and actually increasing the value of that material from how it’s being used at the moment.

“Only where that can’t be done, should we be looking at recycling. It’s about keeping that timber in use and locking that carbon away, keeping that carbon within that building element for possibly hundreds of years, first as a structural timber, then as CLT, then chipboard, then insulation.”