The materials used in the built environment are evolving. While enormous strides are being made in the area of green or sustainable building, humankind is becoming increasingly aware of the legacy created by the casual neglect of our ancestors. The building industry can’t draw a clear line between consumer-use materials and built-use materials. In most cases, they are one and the same and end up in the same place. So, our culpability is huge.
All waste material entering the recycling stream arrives with an embedded legacy of energy and carbon. This should be taken into account when contemplating net zero, especially when benchmarking against the alternative use of virgin materials. For example, the use of fly ash and blast furnace slag in the manufacture of cement is gaining traction. However, the availability of these materials depends entirely on the combustion of coal for energy. So, the use of the byproducts of combustion are mitigation measures, come with a load of embodied energy if traced back to source, and are not sustainable solutions into the future. The same goes for many recycled materials, e.g. eco-bricks being packed with single use plastic bags. If you remove the source of the waste you will, as a consequence, no longer have access to the recycled material.
Ultimately, we need a return to natural substitutes for waste forming materials or scrap them completely. For example, the use of bioplastic as opposed to its synthetic versions, could rid the atmosphere of 4.3 gigatons of CO2 by the year 2050 [Ref:www.drawdown.org]. Bioplastic usage, which curiously first emerged in early model Ford cars, was sidelined (or more accurately, blindsided) by the wealthy and influential oil industry in the USA during the mid-20th Century. The experts add a caveat, however. Bioplastic recycling is a process that needs to take place independently from oil-based plastic recycling, and above all, plastic from both sources should never be mixed in the same product because this prevents all future recycling of both, leaving incineration as the only remaining option to landfill.
The danger of business as usual – a looming threat
The impact of a business as usual approach in the built environment and consumer spaces is well documented. The notion of “take, make, waste” which represents the business as usual approach, has resulted in most of the omnipresent environmental problems of today. One of the keynote speakers at the 2019 Green Building Convention was Jo Ruxton, an award-winning film producer and plastic pollution campaigner. Herfacts about exactly how much plastic has ended up in our oceans, exactly where it is being amassed and what it happening to it. The film she produced, “Plastic Ocean – We Need a Wave of Change”, has been a chilling success in exposing the status quo. Ruxton has in her lifetime, explored the subaquatic world more than most and has documented its devastation first-hand. She concludes that 90% of synthetic waste in the ocean lies at the bottom. We see only the tip of the iceberg at the surface. ‘In my lifetime, plastic production has increased by 3 900% per year. Last year, it totalled 315 million tons, 8 million of which were deposited in the sea,’ she says. Supporting this observation, the Drawdown team states that one-third of all plastics end up in ecosystems, while only 8% is recycled on a global basis.
In Ruxton’s opinion, also shared by leading scientists and backed by hard observations, plastic does not biodegrade. It simply gets broken down by wave action into smaller or micro pieces, which are now entering the food chain. This is resulting in the extinction of multiple species which co-habit the Earth with humans. Apart from this looming environmental tragedy of extinction, humankind’s existence is also threatened, as vital links in the food chain are broken. For example, it is predicted that the consumption of surviving fish stocks could become deadly to humans, due to the increase of plastic waste and toxins in the tissues of the fish. In some cases, certain plastics, due to their molecular nature, are being absorbed into chains of living tissue in the sea and mimicking food. There are islands in the Pacific Ocean such as Tuvalu, where the damage caused by plastic pollution is huge and threaten society. On another island, the population are sick and their disease is traced directly to the ingestion of plastic particles. It is universally recognised that any step in the direction of reducing and re-using existing waste stockpiles, is a huge step in the right direction.