A waste-free future for construction?

Some level of waste is inevitable on all construction sites. However, with better management of the ordering process, which in turn links to BIM systems that can specify precise quantities, does this mean a waste-free future for construction? Dave Howell reports.

Research from the Wates Group suggests the construction industry generates more than 100 million tonnes of waste each year. Moreover, of the 400 million tonnes of materials delivered to construction sites in a year, 60 million tonnes will go straight to landfill because of over-ordering.

NBS, in Construction Waste and Sustainability, states: “When we talk of the solution to construction waste, a lot of things spring to mind; however, the solution can actually be boiled down to a single term: material efficiency. Inherently, a focus on material efficiency will reduce the amount of waste produced within any given project. And, the earlier that focus begins, the bigger the potential for cost savings. As an added ‘bonus’, early implementation of a material efficiency-minded strategy also results in a lesser impact upon the environment and a reduction in natural resource depletion. So, it’s a win for us and a win for the planet.”

More integration across the construction chain is clearly needed to further reduce the levels of waste that must be dealt with. The construction industry is moving towards more streamlined just-in-time approaches to materials sourcing, and moving back down the supply chain to the design and specification stages where material quantities can be assessed in detail before placing actual orders.

The development of more intelligent approaches to material sourcing are evolving albeit at a slow rate. And with European legislation potentially about to change post Brexit, many in the construction industry are in wait and see mode before making any radical alterations to their working practices.

Waste not …

To gain a perspective on how construction waste could be tackled, Croner-i Construction spoke with Caroline Gray, Sector Manager for Construction at Zero Waste Scotland.

Are we doing enough to reduce the waste generated on construction sites?

“The current ‘take, make, dispose’ economic model still prevails in many sectors — but many, including construction, are waking up to the benefits of keeping products and materials circulating around the economy.

“In Scotland, the construction sector is responsible for producing nearly half of the country’s waste. At the heart of that is inefficiency — new materials being over ordered, damage, and lack of standardised materials and processes. All of which means there’s still huge potential to minimise waste and improve best value.

“There’s no doubt that challenges remain. Space is often an issue with limited areas for segregated bins, limiting the quality of material that can be collected for reuse and recycling. Training and understanding of site waste management, particularly among nomadic workforces across numerous sites, could also be improved. But what’s clear is that the benefits of moving towards more circular ways of working outweigh any immediate barriers, and industry is coming to realise that adopting more circular business models can help it remain competitive.”

Is a more integrated approach to construction the only way waste can be substantially reduced?

“Yes — and several of the companies we work with have successfully demonstrated substantial reductions in waste through integration across the entire construction supply chain. It can be achieved through building information modelling (BIM), off-site construction methods, improved supplier relationships and better training. A collaborative approach is a vital component however; buy-in from clients and contractors alike is needed to achieve positive change.”

Is more detailed use of BIM systems for better procurement one way that over-ordering of materials can be reduced?

“As well as producing 3D drawings BIM systems also facilitate better information management, which helps contractors in the supply chain to understand the precise quantities of materials required for a build. It’s really transformative for the sector, and supports the move towards a more circular economy. It’s estimated that implementing BIM could save 10–15% of cost of a construction project by eliminating waste.”

Are Site Waste Management Plans effective enough to reduce construction site waste?

“Site Waste Management Plans can be a powerful tool to help forecast waste and develop solutions before it arises, reducing overall waste and saving money in the process. In Scotland, construction accounts for more than 40 per cent of the country’s waste, and continues to be the largest user of resources. Zero Waste Scotland research indicates the Scottish construction industry could see financial savings of over £170 million simply by implementing a site waste management plan at the start of a project.

“Achieving an industry that really maximises the value of the resources it uses is about more than simply preventing them needlessly going to waste however. Construction produces goods with an extended lifetime, and therefore has the potential to pioneer smarter design. With simple adjustments from design stage — such as utilising materials that are designed smarter so that they last longer, can be fixed when needed, reused when no longer required and recycled effectively at end of life — projects can maximise cost, time and labour.”

How do you think the construction industry as a whole should move to reducing the waste it produces?

“We are beginning to see a shift in the industry towards keeping materials in high-value use for as long as possible — reusing materials and recycling materials effectively. That’s fantastic, but it’s important to remember that in terms of the waste hierarchy, reuse and recycling are the end of the chain. In fact, preventing that waste from occurring in the first place is the strongest way to fast-track a more sustainable construction sector — and one that’s able to keep hold of and reinvest its hard-earned profits.”

What’s preventing the quantities of waste that are produced from being reduced or eradicated?

“We’re not yet at the stage of putting circular economy principles at the core of any project as second-nature. Many sectors, construction included, are still in the early stages of assessing how best to maximise the opportunities it will bring — and the need to see a quick return on investment, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises, can slow down circular economy progress.”


The construction industry can clearly do more to reduce the levels of waste produced. A change in the way that construction projects are planned and then implemented would enable every business and organisation in the supply chain to have a clear path to minimising the quantities of materials ordered, and therefore, reducing the potential waste. A more joined up approach is developing, as the circular economy, climate change regulations and new systems of procurement particularly in the public sector begin to deliver their sated reductions in overall construction waste.