So it was that Jonathan Essex of Bioregional and I arrived in Whitehall at the offices of DEFRA to take part in the latest consultation to discuss the EU Waste Framework Directive and the Waste Hierarchy.
Sadly, carefully worded thoughts are too dull to catch the popular imagination. Conversely, sensationalist headlines alienate the scientific community and responsible policy makers. So, taking the plunge and steering between the two extremes, someone had to call for commitment to environmental challenges and demand things change before it is too late. Let me restate that same point. Commitment has to mean confronting awkward and inconvenient truths that may involve disruption to comfortable lives and require significant altered behaviour. Al Gore may have his detractors but the title of his themed environmental crusade addresses the real issue. Will we accept the inconvenience?
Behind the scenes, in the corridors of power in dry committee rooms, argument hardly rages but quietly progresses, dealing with the great environmental issues of the day.
Before you lose the will to live I should explain.
The prevailing policy affecting waste and the construction industry is wedded to the obsession of recycling in the name of diversion from landfill. Successive government agencies have each rowed in behind the recycling posture, with Treasury subsidy following and providing reinforcement. Conveniently, this approach is easily monitored and measureable by targets, which gives Ministers the opportunity to claim tangible achievements, whilst actually failing to address the fundamental problem.
Waste is defined and modelled as a pyramid with Reuse (and the unspeakable reclamation) at the top of the narrow pinnacle presiding over the broad base of recyclates and incineration (crushing and burning demolition materials). The reality once more is that we pursue target driven objectives relentlessly endorsed by tax incentive, and gloss over the implicit deception because it is reassuring to believe we are successful as recyclers.
The deception continues in the very language we use and the way we discuss the issues. The Germans call the process of material recovery either up cycling or down cycling to expose the truth of the situation. We settle for pretending that recycling is good, whilst actually applying the lowest common denominator approach, and never truly addressing the problem that recycling destroys reusable building materials. Whilst we continue to recycle (crush and burn), we will never achieve the higher recovery of embodied carbon values which would be obtained by driving the emphasis of activity higher up the waste hierarchy.
Demolition on Olympic scale
If all this seems arcane, let me demonstrate the experience of the Olympic Park. The sustainability studies boast 90 percent recovery levels of recycled materials and go immediately into boasting the sustainability credentials of the project. Politicians and the Olympic Delivery Authority instantly congratulated themselves as successful in achieving two core buzz targets – sustainability and recycling. The reality is that traditional demolition teams have mechanically crashed (sorry, reduced) buildings to the ground, sent the concrete and bricks to an onsite crushing facility and segregated the timber and burnable elements for energy generation via incineration. The embodied carbon saving is minimal but the Government loves the headlines saying they are successful recyclers. Hardly anything is reclaimed and reused and so the self-deception goes on!
Jonathan Essex and I both made these points at last week’s consultation exercise held by DEFRA in Whitehall. The exercise could potentially redefine the waste hierarchy in favour of reclamation over recycling but DEFRA needs much more representation from the salvage industry to confirm that this is what we want, and to balance the almost 100 percent of construction stakeholders who are pushing for recycling over reuse.
Get your views off quickly to DEFRA whilst the door is open and before it can be diluted by vested interests that pursue profit before social and environmental considerations.
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