In a wide-ranging initiative designed to help improve the sustainability of plasterboard and other products identified as having a significant environmental impact, stakeholders from the main commercial sectors are working in partnership with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to pilot a series of product “sustainability roadmaps”.
Defra defines a roadmap as “a tool to help us better understand the environmental and social impacts of a particular product and the ways in which these impacts can be mitigated.” Its roadmaps will identify environmental impact throughout a product’s life cycle, set out a course of action and provide funding to develop short, medium, and long term measures aimed at the life cycle stages with the greatest scope for improved sustainability.
While the Building Research Establishment (BRE) Green Guide, which provides an objective online comparison prepared according to BRE’s Environmental Profiles methodology, is a major step forward in creating a more level playing field for industry comparisons of building products, it has several significant omissions, such as social and economic elements of sustainability. The roadmaps are a way of addressing these.
The first set of Defra roadmaps focuses on ten products which fall into four main groups: food and drink, passenger transport, clothing, and housing. A principal EU source of evidence, the EU-25 study The Environmental Impact of Products (EIPRO), shows that these four product categories account for 70-80% of all environmental impacts – housing, including buildings, construction and appliances, generates 20-35%.
Within the fourth category, plasterboard is regarded as a key product because of the increasing demand for gypsum products, leading to the sector growing faster than the construction industry in general. The gypsum sector was chosen because of its long history of innovation and successful dialogue and cooperation with Government environmental bodies, WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) and the Environment Agency on Quality Protocol and PAS109. The manufacturers represented by the Gypsum Products Development Association (GPDA) have shown themselves to be enthusiastic participants in this project.
Defra says, “The plasterboard sector has already demonstrated commitment to improving environmental performance. We consider that the positive, collaborative approach the sector has already demonstrated could prove a useful model for others.”
As demand for plasterboard increases in response to the growing popularity of timber- and metal-framed buildings in the UK, the sector and Defra continue to collaborate on extensive sustainability initiatives. The GPDA initiated last year’s Ashdown Agreement, which committed the industry to challenging recycling targets to bring about a significant reduction in the amount of plasterboard waste, generated by the product manufacturing process and new construction, going to landfill.
Manufacturing accounts for around 30,000 tonnes/year of plasterboard waste, while new construction uses over 2.5m tonnes of gypsum board product and generates some 300,000 tonnes of waste. By 2010, achievement of Ashdown targets will reduce manufacturing
waste sent to landfill to 10,000 tonnes/year, and halve the amount of new construction waste landfilled.
The scope of the roadmap, however, goes still further. While recycling of manufacturing and new build waste is well under way and beginning to deliver results, there is further scope at both ends of the process. Design of buildings and board dimensions, as well as innovation in building components, can prevent over-ordering, and therefore a significant reduction in the amount of waste generated.
Education is also part of the programme. WRAP has designed and distributed guidance documents aimed specifically at different sectors within the construction industry. Good practice guidance material is available, tailored for clients, architects, designers, contractors, and even the DIY market.
At the other end of the product’s lifecycle, the industry and Defra continue to research opportunities for new and innovative end uses. This is particularly important with waste generated by demolition and building refurbishment, where contamination may prevent re-use in manufacture of new board. There is certainly no shortage of raw material – waste from this source, while difficult to measure accurately, is estimated at between 0.5m and 1.0m tonnes/year.
Potential uses are diverse. As well as reusing recycled gypsum in plasterboard manufacture, applications being explored by the sector in collaboration with WRAP include cement manufacture, use in other construction products, civil engineering, agriculture and horticulture.
WRAP’s assessment of the relationship with the gypsum sector was unambiguous and wholly positive. “The plasterboard sector can be a showcase for innovation and at the forefront of sustainable production consumption.”
In construction, recycled gypsum can be used in slope stabilisation, where it reduces slippage on clay-based soils and run-off on sandy-based soils. In agriculture, where gypsum is a traditional soil treatment, recent field trials with potatoes have resulted in improved quality, while wheat treated with recycled gypsum waste showed increased yield and grain weight, when compared with both untreated soil and soil treated with agricultural gypsum.
As well as environmental impact, the roadmap process will also explore the product’s positive contribution, through its insulation properties and use of recycled materials, to increase the sustainability of buildings. This “invisible contribution” – the
benefits of product use – is increasingly being embraced by companies who believe that conventional analysis of their operation may be too simplistic.
In a recession, the aim of improving sustainability becomes more challenging. Defra has cut funding for bodies such as WRAP, putting yet more pressure on industry, so initiatives such as the Ashdown Agreement become even more important. “Industry should not use the economic slowdown as an excuse for not acting”, says Crispin Dunn-Meynell, General Secretary of the GPDA. “But we cannot assume changes will just happen. To help deliver the sustainability improvements highlighted by the roadmap a Plasterboard Sustainability Partnership is being launched between Government and industry stakeholders, so that everyone can work together to this objective”.