BLOG – Plastics: Issues, Impacts and Alternatives  

We know we need to wean ourselves off our plastic habit, which is going to be hard, given it is such an amazing product; light, durable and cheap. Construction is the second largest consumer of plastics behind retail. Single use packaging is estimated to be a third of mixed waste leaving site. Much of this is then landfilled or sometimes fly tipped. Some is burnt and only 2-4% is actually recycled.  It is estimated only 14% of plastics are collected to be recycled, with just 2% recycled in a close loop, 8% down-cycled and 4% lost.  Of the rest, 14% incinerated, 40% goes to landfill and 32% leaks into the environment.

The largest response to a call for evidence on single-use plastics in the Treasury’s history was received this summer, with 162,000 responses.

And then there is the plastic in our construction products including flooring, insulation, paints and finishes, windows, doors, pipes, services etc. How do we avoid unintended consequences of switching to alternatives? Where should we start?….

14 reasons it’s complex!

1) We’re addicted: Plastic is so common and in so many products we build with, it is difficult to know where to start or identify the low hanging fruit.

2) So many chemicals: The ‘Overview of known plastic packaging-associated chemicals and their hazards‘ report mentions 906 chemicals likely associated with plastic packaging and 3,377 substances that are possibly associated. The researchers stated;

Our work was challenged by a lack of transparency and incompleteness of publicly available information on both the use and toxicity of numerous substances”

3) Information overload: We don’t really know the health implications of human ingested plastics, so it is very difficult to take a risk based approach. Dr Sarah Mackenzie Ross, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at UCL states that “100,000 potentially neurotoxic substances are in commercial use and 2,300 new ones are produced each year”. How can we possibly keep up?

4) So many plastics: We know plastics are everywhere; in natural insulation, OSB, and particleboard. This plastic is there for a reason and the product might not be fit for purpose without it. Which plastics are worst and why?

5) Unintended consequences: There could be a real danger of unintended consequences if the industry switches to alternatives. We need to be sure any change, does actually reduce the environmental impact or improve performance.

6) Quality of Information: Detailed life cycle analysis and Environmental Product Declarations are the way forward but these are still relatively rare. It is difficult to compare across product groups or benchmark. Some manufacturer’s claims are not evidenced based and do not stand up to scrutiny. Some of the information in the public domain is at best unhelpful (Please see my note below on BPF).

7) Some LCA shows plastic is better: The Environment Agency’s study on plastic bags states that “paper and cotton bags should be reused at least 3 and 131 times respectively to ensure that they have lower global warming potential than conventional HDPE carrier bags that are not reused”.

8) Lack of evidence: Whilst being pretty sure there are links between plastics, health effects and allergies due to implications with phthalates, heavy metals, BPA ,fire retardants, toxicity, etc. We still lack the evidence to support this.

9) Toxicity: Although the inhalation of toxic smoke is the biggest killer and the largest cause of injury in fires, it is very much the ‘neglected area of fire science and fire safety engineering’ according to a report by our Healthy Buildings 2019 speaker, Professor Anna Stec.

10) Is plastic just the wrong stuff in the wrong place or is it the right stuff that needs improved stewardship?

Plastic ‘nurdles’ found on UK beaches

11) New words such as ‘Nurdle’: A 2018 survey by FIDRA revealed that 93% of our beaches have plastic nurdles on them, with one 100m stretch of beach in Cornwall having an estimated 10m nurdles. A ‘nurdle’ is a pellet around the size of a lentil and is commonly used for transportation of plastics. Tracing nurdles that have spilled into the sea back to their source is complex.

12) Should we be purchasing on the basis of recycled content and what are the issues around legacy stabilisers, such as cadmium and lead? Should we be viewing the built environment as a sink for waste plastic? Bath University estimate 10% of sand could be replaced in concrete.

13) Are bio-plastics the next problem waiting to happen?

14) Finally, why would we switch? Plastics are amazing.

  • Incredible strength to weight ratio
  • Lightweight
  • Cost effective
  • Durable
  • Shatter proof
  • Barrier to moisture
  • Protects
  • Maintenance free
  • Keeps food fresh for longer
  • Deals with extreme temperatures
  • Reduces breakages
  • Culturally enabling….is this pushing it?

Back to the quality of information… according to a report by the BPF, ‘The environmental cost to replacing plastic with alternatives materials would be nearly 4 times greater’.

This figure was broadcast by the BBC on Costing the Earth by Trucost on Radio 4 on 24th October, 2018 with very little scrutiny from the host of the show. The referenced report is sponsored by the American Chemicals Council, so it seems highly likely to contain some bias.

The author has subsequently spoken with Rick Lord, the author of this referenced report, at Trucost who;

  • Accepted that this report was not an academic report and had not been independently peer reviewed.
  • Accepted lumping together worst and best alternatives was not really very helpful.
  • Accepted that there was a mistake on the BPF website – ‘Plastic only uses 4% of the world’s oil production – the rest is used for transport, energy, heat or is burnt.’ He suggests it is 8-12%.
  • Accepted that it was not ideal that all the assumptions needed to understand the headline figure were not provided in an 87 page report. “Its because it would then be 250 pages long”.
  • Accepted that methodology in the marine plastics costings was evolving

Even with this level of complexity, the precautionary principle should dictate that we must start to switch away. This approach has been spearheaded by Perkins and Will in the States, who have led a coalition of US architects and fire and rescue teams with Richard Duffy, International Association of Fire-fighters, USA stating, “Exposure to a single PVC fire can cause permanent respiratory disease. Due to its intrinsic hazards, we support the efforts to identify and use alternative building materials that do not pose as much risk as PVC to fire-fighters, building occupants and communities”.

To help with the complexities, the ASBP has convened leading experts on Thursday 28th February to discuss all this further at our Healthy Buildings Conference and Expo, where over 15 exhibitors will also share their stories.

ASBP will be launching a Plastics Technical Working Group at the conference, which will be led by ASBP Board member Susan Harris, with input from Katherine Adams and the ASBP team, with regular meetings and inward and outward facing outputs. The first task is to complete a call for evidence and case studies to highlight best practice. If you would like more information on the group, please contact Simon Corbey: simon@asbp.org.uk.

If plastic is a microcosm of all of our other environmental problems, then following that logic, so are the solutions”. Steven Buryani


Blog post written by:

Simon Corbey, Director, ASBP, November 30th 2018

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