Global Recycling Day is a day for the world to recognise and celebrate the importance of recycling, and how fundamental recycling is to an environmentally stable planet; however, recycling is only achievable when we have sustainable materials that can be efficiently recycled.
This is particularly the case in the construction industry when considering how reliant it is on plastic as a material, in fact the construction industry is responsible for 23% of the UK’s total consumption of plastic. Shockingly 40% of plastic used by the construction industry is sent to landfill. This shows how far our culture needs to change in terms of adopting recyclable materials and using more sustainable products. Copper, which has a full scrap collection and recycling infrastructure in place, is a good example of this type of sustainable material.
Evaluating plastic recycling
A big conversation in the recycling world is about plastic recycling. Despite there being a large amount of press around the research and future potential of recycling plastic, presently, of the 8.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastic produced worldwide, only 9% has been recycled.
Plastic often isn’t recycled due to the process being expensive and complicated, it is usually a crude and energy-intensive process. Not only this, but after the recycling process you are left with a lower-quality, weaker plastic than you began with, meaning recycling has a detrimental effect on the quality of recycled plastics.
So, what is happening to the 91% of virgin plastics that aren’t being recycled around the world? 40% is said to end up in landfill, and it’s estimated that by 2050, 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste will be sitting in landfills. All of these tonnes of plastic will be contributing to the pollution of the surrounding natural environments. To give some context, in 2015, the amount of plastic in landfills was close to 4.9 billion tonnes.
Another shocking statistic is that 19% of virgin plastic is simply dumped. Britain is being criticised for dumping in Malaysia, with a Greenpeace investigation from last year finding evidence of illegal dumping. After further inspection these dumped materials were found to include recycling collection bags from three London councils.
Choosing sustainable building materials
With plastic clearly not being recycled as it should, what does this mean for copper in the construction industry? Does the recycling process for copper have the same detrimental effects on the environment as plastic recycling?
Copper as a material is 100% recyclable and its properties and quality do not deteriorate with use, making copper an extremely sustainable product. In many cases copper from old and redundant pipework can be recovered, melted, and cast into new products with the same level of quality. It’s for this reason you’ll never find copper in a skip on site; the same cannot be said for plastic pipes and products. This continued use and re-use of copper pipes underpins its place in a circular economy, with copper being one of the most circular materials available to the construction industry.
The recycling process for copper is also exceptionally sustainable. Recycling copper, in comparison to mining the raw material, uses 85% less energy and there is less demand for mining because needs for copper are being met by recycling old material. In Europe around 50% of the demand for copper, and approximately 30% of global demand for copper is being met by recycling. This is evidence of a very sustainable circular economy, proven even further by the fact that 65% of all copper that has ever been mined is still in circulation or available to use.
So, this Global Recycling Day, consider what’s the most sustainable material for the construction industry and remember that copper is one material that won’t cost the earth.