Keeping housing in the loop

Plasterboard manufacturer Siniat is one of the partners involved in an EU-led project that aims to promote a fully sustainable closed loop approach to building. Head of EHS and Sustainability at Siniat, Steve Hemmings, explains what this means for the housebuilding sector

With the construction industry as a whole starting to place increasing importance on a ‘fabric first’ approach to sustainability and adapting to the Part L changes, we’re seeing housebuilders give much greater scrutiny to the provenance of the building materials they use – the content, the manufacturing process, and what all of these factors mean for the materials’ low-carbon credentials.

This has resulted in more widespread usage of building products with recycled content, which is certainly a step in the right direction. However, while specifiers are now giving much more consideration to how their choice of materials will give each house they build the best possible start, how many are planning for the end of that property’s life?

While specifying recycled content goes some way towards addressing present day resource availability, it doesn’t provide for the long-term journey of these materials – from cradle to grave.

Currently, in the majority of EU countries, most buildings are demolished at the end of their life. The result is unsegregated waste consistently going to landfill, with no opportunity to sort it and recover valuable recyclable materials.

Plasterboard’s potential
As a widely used product in housebuilding, plasterboard is a good place to start implementing a more sustainable closed-loop approach to construction – 2.35 million tonnes of gypsum waste per year are currently estimated to arise from construction, demolition and renovation across the EU.

Gypsum, the main component in plasterboard manufacturing, is in theory as infinitely recyclable as gypsum throughout the plasterboard lifecycle, so it should be one of the easier building materials to rescue from landfill.

However, despite the inherent recyclability of most plasterboard products, one of the biggest challenges the industry faces is ensuring that, at the end of their life, houses can be deconstructed in such a way that the plasterboard elements can be efficiently recovered.

To combat this problem, Siniat is one of 16 industry partners collaborating on a three-year research programme called the Gypsum-to-Gypsum Project (GtoG), which aims to improve the way plasterboard can be reused once a building is deconstructed. The project began in January 2013 and is funded by EU Life, the EU’s programme for supporting environmental and nature conservation projects.

The objectives of the project are twofold: to increase post-consumer plasterboard recycling and to transform the plasterboard demolition market. By closing the loop, higher plasterboard recycling rates can be achieved and a resource efficient economy created. Our delivery partners include manufacturers, universities and, crucially, both recycling and demolition companies.

Working in partnership
Specifically, there are three key steps that we hope will enable us to create closed-loop recycling for gypsum products. The first is to ensure that dismantling practices are applied as standard instead of demolishing buildings. The second is to segregate waste at source. This is crucial for avoiding mixed waste and contamination. Thirdly, we need to ensure that recycled gypsum meets stringent specifications in order to be reincorporated into the manufacturing process.

To date, the project has focused on proving that gypsum waste can be easily separated, processed and supplied at a high enough quality that it can be incorporated back into the plasterboard manufacturing process without compromising new products. We’re working to design a harmonised deconstruction process to achieve this. There are also trials under way at five manufacturing sites across the UK, France, Belgium and Germany to demonstrate the viability of reusing gypsum waste.

It’s clear that the project’s success is dependent on close collaboration across the whole supply chain. But it’s also clear that adopting a sustainable approach could deliver benefits for everyone involved. More efficient use of resources will ultimately reduce the strain on raw material extraction and create a more sustainable industry for all stakeholders.