It was good news to read recently that a local carpet tile manufacturer has taken the opportunity in building a new factory to provide space for recycling their product at end of life.

The company is reportedly investing $1.4 million in research and development to reprocess old carpet domestically – an encouraging signal that, with the latest technologies, the recycling market can be sustained under local cost structures.

The Australian building and construction industry is increasingly recognized for its commitment to the use of sustainable materials and practices. The sector’s ability, however, to cost effectively recover, separate and recycle – particularly, locally – its waste materials needs to be a key part of that journey. Supply chain collaboration, innovation and education provide cues for the future of building product waste markets.

The Australian government reports that the construction and demolition (C&D) sector generates the greatest amount of waste in the economy (2010-11) and it has the highest recovery rate, at 66 per cent, of the three main waste stream sectors (C&D, municipal, and commercial and industrial). The potential for reducing waste generation and further improving recovery and recycling of C&D waste is good, but the market faces some major barriers.

A gathering of representatives from various parts of the building products value chain in September highlighted both the perceived opportunities and the existing challenges for materials recycling in the C&D sector. Collection systems, recycling technology and market demand are reasonably well established for high volume, dense or high value building materials such as metal, cement, bricks and timber.

The 2015 ReSource Summit organised by the vinyl industry brought 65 manufacturers, suppliers, users, recyclers and policy-makers together to discuss solutions for more complex, lightweight materials and products such as flooring, pipe, window frames, cable and conduit.

Issues raised included the relatively low cost of landfill levies, which act as a deterrent to waste recovery and the disinterest of major waste sorting facilities and recyclers to separate commingled lightweight materials such as plastics for local reprocessing. Those in the recycling value chain reported a lack of engagement with Tier 2 building projects when it comes to recycling and the current patchwork of local policies and programs has not yet been effective in grabbing their attention.

Australia also currently faces comparatively high costs for reprocessing and product development due to greater difficulty in achieving economies of scale in the recycling industry. In Europe, population and therefore waste density provides a level of scale which can support better returns on technology investment for plants and processes. It has been reported that the rise of PVC recycling alone in Europe has created around 1,000 direct jobs across the region as well as led to investment in development of new technologies for reprocessing traditional and composite materials.

The summit provided a multidisciplinary platform to explore and debate issues such as cross-material contamination, dispersed sources of waste from demolition sites and gaps in collection and separation systems. Participants were confident that future gains will be made to C&D waste recycling through collaborative partnerships and greater engagement between regulators, manufacturers, users, recyclers and industry associations.

Convenience and cost will remain crucial drivers, with a need to focus on developing user-friendly systems to collect and separate clean C&D waste at source to maximize its recycling value.

Sharing responsibility for C&D waste

The recognition that collaboration is the way to go to improve C&D recovery and recycling is recognition of the shared responsibility of all parties in the supply chain to contribute to this aim. It’s a question of building relationships and awareness via extended producer responsibility between manufacturers, construction companies and the trades.

The journey is underway, with product manufacturers looking to enhance recovery options through design for disassembly, the use of non-adhesive fixture systems for floor coverings and investment in collection or recycling systems.

But the willingness of those working on construction projects to use the systems effectively and diligently is vital to optimize the reuse value of the resources. For example, drop-off points have been provided at plumbing trade outlets for plastic pipe waste, but contamination from other dumped materials such as soil and paint is high at around 20 to 30 per cent, making the reprocessing unviable or at least, a lot more costly. Education in the value of recycling, and doing it right, is a necessary and ongoing requirement.

State governments are showing a willingness to invest in research and development (R&D) for recycling innovation. For example, the NSW Environment Trust recently opened a round of grants for residual materials for which solutions are required. This might include reprocessing solutions for composite materials like commercial vinyl flooring so that they meet the functional characteristics of major, potential re-use applications.

Overseas, R&D efforts are also providing results for C&D waste. Commercially successful developments to date include new technologies to recycle wall coverings, tarpaulins and the fibre component of carpet tiles.

What else will help to drive the Australian C&D waste recovery sector forward? According to those in the supply chain, from manufacturers and product suppliers to end-users and recyclers:

  • An increase in landfill levies and greater policy consistency across states and territories will provide a stronger business case for recovery and sorting.
  • Australia’s C&D sector would benefit from a roll-out of the successful New South Wales industrial ecology program. The Better Building Partnerships in Sydney is another role model of a collaborative approach encouraging engagement along the supply chain, building understanding and generating solutions and initiatives for improving outcomes.
  • Pockets of excellence are not enough to take the resource recovery market to the next level – for success, manufacturers must play a role through, for example, commitments to buy back agreed minimum quantities of reprocessed materials so as to support a local market for recyclates. Defined quality standards and characteristics of recycled polymers to be met by reprocessors will further support take-up of recyclates and encourage new end use applications.
  • Across the industry, greater R&D investment is needed to provide technology enablers and improve resource efficiency and recycling. Demonstration projects, collaborative partnerships and events are needed to share information between recyclers and manufacturers, and to improve engagement with Tier 1 developers and project construction managers.
  • The rise in modular/pre-fabrication construction provides an important opportunity to work with construction managers off the construction site to help improve resource efficiency and reduce waste generation. It may also offer opportunities to develop cleaner, separated waste streams, improving recyclate quality and reprocessing.

Recycling C&D waste is no longer in its infancy in Australia, but does require some support to progress to the next stage of its journey. Addressing some of the issues identified to date will contribute to this evolution but extensive, ongoing collaboration and cooperation between stakeholders will also be required if it has any chance of becoming a well-oiled machine.