Environmental impact of higher recycled content in construction projects

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Construction clients, policy bodies and planning authorities are increasingly setting requirements for projects to measure and increase reused and recycled content. They are asking project teams to adopt the most significant opportunities for cost-neutral good practice within the chosen design, by identifying the top 5-10 substitutions specific to the project where one product can be replaced by an equivalent with higher recycled content. Alongside waste reduction and recycling, this reuse of recovered material is one contribution to the efficient use of materials – driven by objectives such as cost-saving, diversion from landfill, carbon saving and corporate social responsibility.

Potentially there are significant environmental benefits from reusing waste materials and incorporating them in manufactured construction products. However, to date there have been relatively few studies that have looked at these impacts in a robust and scientifically rigorous way, and none that have tried to tackle a broad grouping of material types at the same time.

This report assesses the difference in environmental performance that results from using greater levels of recycled material at no extra cost in construction projects. Many gaps and weaknesses in data have been found, and therefore the findings should be regarded as indicative and not absolute.  General trends of environmental performance have been analysed for fourteen product categories that commonly offer the most viable and cost neutral options for increasing recycled content (termed ‘Quick Win’ categories). Twelve environmental performance indicators, including diversion from landfill, have been evaluated where possible for each of the fourteen product categories using lifecycle assessment.

The results have been presented for carbon emissions (kg CO2 eq. (100 years)); and for all twelve environmental performance indicators combined, in the form of the Building Research Establishment’s (BRE’s) overall “Ecopoint” score. (100 Ecopoints is equivalent to the environmental impact of the average UK citizen over one year.)

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