Constructing a more sustainable future for the industry

Scientists and experts have been issuing warnings about the effects of climate change for decades and there is no doubt that we are experiencing the devastating realities of it now.

Recent evidence has found that over 99% of plastic is produced from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels, the biggest contributor to climate change. 

July 2023 officially marked the hottest month on record globally, October 2023 was the UK’s second stormiest on record, and November’s heatwave in Rio de Janeiro was Brazil’s eighth of the year with feels-like temperatures reaching 59.7 °C – it’s clear that our planet is struggling to cope with rising temperatures. 

The environmental effects of plastic are even more devastating than they initially seem, considering they are largely unnecessary when much more sustainable options are readily available, such as copper, for use in pipework.

Oliver Lawton, co-founder of the Copper Sustainability Partnership (CuSP) and Managing Director at Lawton Tubes, discusses why his passion for sustainability is stronger than ever and how industries can make changes for the better.

Tell us about your role at CuSP and how you work to support the environment

CuSP was born out of Lawton Tubes and Mueller Europe joining forces — despite being competing copper tube manufacturers — to represent copper’s role in the manufacturing community. Together, we strive to fight back against the plastics greenwash and educate our peers in the industry about the environmental benefits of copper to make the industry more sustainable.

How do you think the UK can improve its sustainability efforts as a whole?

Currently, a lot of discussion in the media focuses on consumer plastic use, such as fresh produce packaging or consumer modes of travel, with many cities introducing clean air zones. We would never say this isn’t a positive change, but there needs to be more focus on business and industry sustainability.

For example, the construction industry is systemically one of the biggest contributors to the UK’s carbon emissions and waste production. In fact, construction, demolition, and excavation generated around three-fifths (62%) of total UK waste in 2018.

The construction industry is rife with standard practices that have been in place for far too long and don’t reflect the steps in sustainability we’ve collectively taken. Many of the current guidelines stem from the ‘value engineering’ methodology, which focuses on reducing the cost of producing a product, without reducing its quality or efficacy. Unfortunately, this means that in practice, sustainability has not been prioritised.

Considering the sheer volume of waste produced by the industry, it’s paramount that more regulations are imposed on the sector. Despite many industry leaders and trade shows listing sustainability high on their list of priorities, do all of them truly follow through with their promises? The government and governing bodies of the construction industry must force these companies to start taking responsibility.

Learn more about the value engineering methodology below.

Value engineering


What can you tell us about recycling processes in the construction industry?

Contrary to the mistruths perpetrated by the plastic industry, the rate of plastic recycling is much lower than they would have you believe. Research shows that globally, across all industries, only 9% of plastic waste is recycled – another 19% is incinerated, 50% ends up in landfill and 22% evades waste management systems.

Meanwhile, a natural element, copper is overlooked and underestimated by many, when it is, in fact, the superior material, thanks to its fire resistance, durability and versatility. It is infinitely recyclable and can be reused again and again without losing any of its capabilities.

Evidencing its recyclability, half of Europe’s copper demand is currently being met by recycled materials. What’s more, 65% of all copper that has ever been mined is still in circulation. Copper used thousands of years ago is still in use today and could even be in the wires of the screen you’re reading this on!

Learn more about the copper recycling process below.

Copper recycling


What should we be most concerned about?

The plastics greenwash spread by industry leaders is certainly the biggest threat to a sustainable planet. Research has found that only 9% of the world’s plastic has ever been recycled – a stark difference from the messages circulated in the media.

Since the end of World War II, plastic has been praised as a saving grace due to its cheap cost and versatility, which at the time did offer temporary solutions in a period of rebuilding. However, we have since learned much more about the material and its harmful consequences.

Learn more about the plastics greenwash below.

The plastics greenwash


What does the future of the planet look like?

It is impossible to tell – the world is currently at a crossroads. One path is paved with our actions without change, which will surely lead us to a world we can no longer recognise or survive in. Should we not alter our behaviour to be more considerate of the environment, we will find ourselves facing the consequences. One example of this may be that around the world, we would be forced to wear masks over our faces to prevent the inhalation of pollution, which we already see in China. 

Alternatively, the second path is forged from conscious choices to implement more sustainable changes systemically. It’s necessary to lobby for more regulations and guidance to force the big players in the construction industry to reduce waste and pollution generation.

I urge anybody working in the construction industry, whether as a labourer or a managing director, to make more mindful choices. Unsustainable materials like plastic may be cheaper, but we need to move away from the value engineering model, that ensures financial savings at any cost. We must start balancing profit with the planet, and prioritise more sustainable products, such as copper.

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