In 2021, in collaboration with our Reducing Plastics in Construction Group, ASBP undertook a survey to gain a greater understanding of the construction industry’s perspectives in regards to the use of plastics in construction.
The short survey was completed by nearly 100 professionals from across the construction supply chain, with over a third of respondents being designers or specifiers. The survey focused on construction products rather than single use packaging.
Responders were asked to rate the importance of a number of issues with regard to use of plastic in construction.
The most important issue with 80% ranking as very important was ‘ensuring that the product is managed appropriately at end of life’; closely followed by ‘reducing the overall use of plastic’ (at 78%) and ‘eliminating chemicals that are harmful to health’ at 72%.
The least important issue was ‘increasing the recycled content’, followed by ‘reducing the use of fossils fuels in its manufacture’.
Additional comments from respondents included:
- The need to address plastic packaging
- Having viable recycling routes
- Reducing and eliminating toxicity
- Understanding the embodied carbon of plastic-based construction products.
Use of plastic-based construction products
Where is plastic used?
The use of plastic-based construction products is common in all applications; the most frequent being drainage (52% ranking it as always and 44% as often); followed by services (52% as always and 40% as often) and plumbing (49% as always and 44% as often). Those with a lower frequency were ceilings, cladding/façade and walls.
Why is plastic used?
The highest ranked reason for why plastic-based construction products are used, was cost effectiveness (with 62% ranking this first, and 19% as second); 40% ranked ‘ease’ as their first or second choice and 28% for technical performance. 58% of respondents put ‘no suitable alternatives’ as their least ranked reason.
Reducing usage of plastic-based construction products
The greatest opportunity to reduce the use of plastic-based construction products was for insulation with 48% scoring this as excellent and 28% as very good; next was walls with 45% ranking this as excellent and 24% as very good, followed by flooring which 44% rated excellent and 38% good. For most other applications, e.g. cladding, finishes and paints, doors and windows, ceilings and roofs, over two-thirds thought the opportunity to reduce plastic was either very good or excellent. Drainage, plumbing and services has the least opportunity with around half of the respondents scoring them as either very poor or poor.
Substituting plastic-based construction products
Applications commonly substituted by alternative products
When asked if they had tried to substitute plastic-based construction products with non-plastic products; nearly 60% had for insulation; and over half had for doors, windows and flooring. Applications less commonly substituted included trunking, pipework, soffits and facias.
2. Windows and doors
Regularly used alternative materials
Materials that had been used for the substitution included wood (78%), metal (69%), and natural fibre (61%). Around a quarter had used cork, brick and glass. Less than 20% had replaced with cardboard and concrete.
3. Natural fibre
96% viewed their substitution of plastic as successful. The benefits were reduced environmental impact (88%), aesthetics (59%), better performance (51%) and lower lifecycle cost (43%). The main drawback was cost (69%).
Respondents could also add their own thoughts and key themes included cost, lack of incentives to use alternatives, ensuring the appropriate use of plastics, quality and performance and reuse.
Activities to help reduce plastics usage
Activities to help assist in reducing plastic usage
Respondents were asked what the most useful activities would be in assisting them in reducing their use of plastic-based construction products. 66% thought that having guidance where products could be substituted was very useful and 27% as useful; 56% thought that case studies/product profiles would be very useful and 50% thought a recycled products listing/database. However, 75% scored all the activities as useful or very useful.
1. Guidance on alternatives
2. Case studies/product profiles
3. Product database
Other comments included life cycle analysis (environmental impact and cost) comparison between plastics and alternatives, increased availability of alternatives at mainstream merchants/suppliers, legislation to incentivise use of alternatives, information on standards/warranties, specific credits in BREEAM/LEED for using alternatives, increased awareness/training of alternatives, client guide, ‘Top 10 worst plastics’: risky plastics and suitable alternatives, and template action plans.
Activities to be undertaken by respondents
For activities that the respondents were undertaking, the highest was ‘reduce plastic usage’ and ‘investigate alternative products’ at 45% each; and a third are looking to increase their knowledge of plastics. Over a third were highly likely to undertake all activities listed. Other activities mentioned included signposting information to others, raising awareness of plastic issues and alternatives in-house and with clients, engaging contractors in regard to on-site separation of waste, and improving production processes.
The survey findings are incredibly useful for ASBP and its Reducing Plastic in Construction Group in setting a focus for future activities, events and outputs.
Over the coming months we will be launching a new Learning Portal with a full online training course on Reducing Plastics in Construction, with further information on issues, alternatives and more.
We will also be developing our Interactive House further to include information on plastic types with the most environmental impact, alternative products and their pros and cons, and case studies/product profiles.