WRAP promotes concept of ‘waste neutrality’

Following the popularity of claims about "carbon neutrality", WRAP has come up with a formula for calculating whether construction projects are "waste neutral".

‘Neutrality’ is very much in vogue. Claims of ‘carbon neutral’ organisations, products and services abound, the concept of ‘water neutrality’ is appearing in policy and corporate strategy discussions (ENDS Report 389, pp 6-7 ), and now, almost inevitably, ‘waste neutrality’ has appeared.

The new English waste strategy defines it as "when the value of reused or recycled materials employed on a construction project… equals the value of materials that are wasted." The strategy says all major government building projects should be waste neutral by 2012.

Waste neutrality is also expected to form the backbone of the forthcoming sustainable construction strategy (ENDS Report 382, pp 44-45 ), while the London Olympics has a goal to be waste neutral.

In June, WRAP published details of how it believes the concept could be used as a "powerful aspirational target" that could encourage waste reduction, increased recycling and increased use of recovered materials in the construction sector.1

The government body has developed a "net waste method" to calculate whether a project is waste neutral or moving towards it. This involves subtracting the value of all recovered materials used on or off site, including the recycled content of building materials above standard practice, from the value of all waste materials a site produces. If the two sides balance out, a project could claim to be waste neutral. Projects would not be able to ‘offset’ their waste by buying credits from other projects to achieve neutrality.

WRAP accepts that some projects would be unable to achieve waste neutrality because of technical difficulties in using recycled materials, but says they could still use the formula as a performance indicator. It could also be included in site waste management plans, which are due to become a mandatory requirement next year (ENDS Report 387, p 43 ).

The idea is being tested by eight companies including Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Crest Nicholson and Skanska on projects including schools, hospitals and housing developments.

The concept’s benefit comes from it being a "holistic measure that looks at materials efficiency across a project, rather than individual elements like use of recycled materials," said WRAP construction manager David Moon.

The focus on the value, rather than the volume, of materials also has benefits. "There’s been a lot of focus on quantities of waste in the construction industry," said Mr Moon, "but that doesn’t tell you much about the financial benefits of reusing materials on site or minimising waste. This will give people that insight and should motivate them to take action."

However, the term might struggle to win credibility given that some projects could claim to be "waste neutral" whilst still sending waste to landfill.

But construction firms seem to support the idea. "It’s not that different from what we do now on projects," said Stuart Mee, sustainability manager at Carillion. "We have targets for minimising waste and using recycled content. But this links them together and I think it could be extremely useful for benchmarking performance."

Mr Mee said he could see the concept being incorporated into the building regulations, but he is concerned that it focuses too much on the use of recycled materials. "It won’t be good if it gives companies the view that they can simply ‘offset’ their waste by increasing the recycled content of the materials they use. That should be a secondary action taken after minimising waste."

He also questions whether the method is practical for projects which involve subcontractors. "A lot of the work we do involves them and to understand the materials they use and where they source them from is difficult. But it would be to our advantage to find that out - it’d make us more efficient - so we will have to see if the method encourages that."

Rachel Wooliscroft, group environment manager at Wates, welcomed the method’s focus on the economic value of materials. "It’s key - you wouldn’t get buy-in without showing people they can save money."

Wates is seen by many as the construction industry’s leader on waste because of its target to stop landfilling non-hazardous waste by 2011 (ENDS Report 379, pp 30-33 ).

Ms Wooliscroft said this target would not be undermined by WRAP promoting waste neutrality, because clients find landfill diversion much simpler to understand.

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