News / Plastic: An AlterNATIVE View
Posted: 21 January 2021
- Every year the UK consumes over 5 million tonnes of plastic with nearly a quarter of this by the construction industry.
- Plastics made from fossil fuels harm the natural environment and they contribute to greenhouse gas emissions at every stage of their lifecycle, from production, refining and the way it is managed as a waste product.
- The most common waste product in the construction industry is plastic packaging accounting for nearly 25% of all waste leaving construction sites.
- Plastics used in furnishings and interior finishes leach harmful chemicals into the air for years through a process called off-gassing.
At Native Architects, our concerns for the environment have compelled us to minimise our use of plastic in the buildings we are responsible for and to advise our clients what alternatives are available and what choices they have.
- We can control and minimise the use of plastic in buildings in a number of ways.
- We specify materials and products to avoid the use of plastics in the details and design of a building, parts that are not normally visible, but these can have a huge impact on the way the building works. For example, plastic sheets and rolls of dense plastic used as damp proofing membranes are routinely specified in the construction industry but there are alternatives. Re-cycled glass products in sheets, blocks and aggregates can be used as a substitute for plastic damp proofing products with the advantage that they have other beneficial qualities – providing insulation to walls, roof decks and foundations and they do not allow the capillary action of water through their cells. Using recycled glass to prevent moisture from entering the building construction avoids wrapping the building in impervious materials that prevent moisture, found naturally in many buildings from escaping.
- We avoid many common plastic components, such as rainwater pipes and gutters, door and window frames by specifying natural materials such as metal and timber. These alternatives reduce the amount of plastic from entering the natural environment.
- We know that using plastics in older buildings during improvement or renovation works can produce unintended consequences that are not visible after the work is completed. Water vapour can be trapped in roofs, walls and floors by plastic coated materials that will not allow the passage of water causing rot and decay that is enclosed behind the finished surfaces.
- We can advise our clients of the problems that plastics can bring where they are part of the interior.
- Common materials such as floor tiles, carpets, sheet floor coverings, paints, furniture and trims can produce chemicals that pollute the indoor environment. There is strong evidence of the production of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and toxic phthalates that accumulate inside buildings and these harmful chemicals are persistent and are linked directly to health problems.
- We understand the importance of knowing how plastics and plastic alternatives can be used in buildings without harming the environment or building occupants unnecessarily.
- Native is a member of the Alliance for Sustainable Building Products, an expert organisation that is a key stakeholder in the best research in the construction industry. It publishes and shares advice on resource efficiency, health and wellbeing and product sustainability. One of its latest initiatives is the launch of a new introductory guidance document on the topic of plastics in construction. This guide seeks to explore how to use and the effects of alternatives to plastics in construction.
- Native are also members of the AECB – Association for Environment Conscious Building, a network of individuals and companies with a common aim of promoting sustainable building, bringing together contractors, tradespeople, architects, designers, engineers, manufacturers, local authorities and academics to help develop, share, train and promote sustainable building best practice. The use of alternative building materials and products and avoiding the use of plastics and plastic compounds is dependent on education to help effect deep lasting change within the construction industry. For Native Architects, organisations like the AECB provide a place where sound building knowledge is accessible and its dissemination through training and other resources provides a path towards the change we need to improve the planet through building and living sustainability in our homes and workplaces.
- There are drivers for reducing plastics and using alternatives that relate to our industry. One shining example is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy – a circular economy for plastics in which it never becomes waste. Signatories to this initiative commit to three actions to realise this vision. Eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic items. Innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable. Circulate all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment. This New Plastics Economy is a global commitment in collaboration with UN Environment. Native supports this ambition and will access new research as it becomes available, participate in research projects and share knowledge via events, webinars and conferences.
As architects and consumers, we ask “is there an alternative to plastic?” If there is, we explore, research and specify alternative products. If not, we will try to specify any re-cycled plastic equivalents that are available.
asbp.org.uk is a useful resource for further information about plastics in construction.
aecb.net is another useful resource – the largest and oldest network for sustainable building.