Construction waste makes up an enormous percentage of UK waste (62%), meaning sustainable building materials are vital if we’re ever to start reversing its adverse effects on our landfill sites.
So while creating less construction waste and properly managing it is vitally important to lightening the load, using materials that don’t contribute to the huge amount of C&D waste in the first place is the ultimate solution.
Not only do sustainable construction materials help protect the planet from mounting waste, but they can also save building companies money in their waste management (lower processing fees) and make them good candidates for government contracts.
Here are some of the innovative sustainable building materials we might be seeing on UK construction sites in the near future.
One big reason that so much concrete ends up in landfill is the fact that it needs to be replaced during building renovations due to its tendency to crack over time. Not only does this create an issue for the integrity of the structure it’s supporting, but it also leaves room for damp to set in and weaken it even further.
Enter self-healing concrete: a sustainable building material developed by dutch microbiologist Hendrik Jonkers that’s set to change the face of building renovations forever.
“We think our concrete will revolutionise the way people build because we’ve been inspired by nature. Plants and animals have the ability to heal themselves, and now we’ve made it possible for concrete to do the same.”
The sustainable material is made up of a bacteria mixture, which is activated when water gets into its cracks, forcing it to expand and fill the space. So self-healing concrete not only saves on the amount of concrete waste sent to landfill, but it also requires less energy to repair it.
Similar technology is being developed at Rice University in Texas, where experts are hard at work on a new method that controls (or “programs”) how concrete sets, making it so strong that builders won’t need as much of it.
It’s not only concrete production that’s leveraging nature to create more sustainability. By infusing sand and bacteria, scientists are developing new ways to make strong biodegradable bricks.
Bricks are a common type of construction waste, and with so many being piled into landfill, new sustainable methods for making them are going to massively reduce their impact on the environment.
At the University of Colorado Boulder in the United States, researchers are using bacteria to grow bricks that actually absorb carbon dioxide, as opposed to clay bricks which generate a lot of the greenhouse gas in their production.
Good progress is also being made with bricks made from mushrooms. By mixing mycelium (the vegetative parts of mushrooms) with corn husks in moulds, architect David Benjamin was able to build a 40-foot high tower of sustainable bricks in New York.
While it might sound like something out of a superhero film, sustainable building material experts are looking to arachnids for inspiration to strengthen structures while still being environmentally friendly.
Japanese innovator Spiber Inc has spun a solution that could be five times stronger than steel (as organic spiderwebs actually are, if there were a spider big enough to produce it for the construction industry).
Currently, the technology is flawed in that it absorbs water, so isn’t ready for application in construction, but the company is currently using the material to make environmentally friendly fabric for clothing, which is sold along with a hefty price tag by North Face.
Wood has been used as a building material for centuries, but in modern urban areas, concrete and steel have become the norm due to high demand for towering skyscrapers and sprawling shopping districts.
However, new advances in timber production could soon see a reversal in wood’s popularity as a building material. By glueing several pieces of timber together so that the grain lies perpendicular to each other, a super-strong material comparable to concrete and steel is formed – and it can even be used to build skyscrapers.
Cross-laminated timber (CLT) was used to build the 18-storey Wood Hotel in Norway. A lot of the structure was pre-fabricated, saving a lot of time and energy onsite, and the building was erected with internal scaffolding. Even the lift shafts were made from CLT!
SunSkips is passionate about repurposing waste and keeping it out of landfill, so the idea of using discarded potatoes as a sustainable building material is right up our street.
UK company Chip[s] Board makes use of potato waste to make a biodegradable board that can be used as a substitute for MDF (medium-density fibreboard, made from wood). The product contains no toxic chemicals and removes the need for fresh materials to be introduced into the ecosystem.
“Circular economy should be the starting point when designing new products and materials,” says Chip[s] Board CEO Rowan Minkley.
The company has already formed a partnership with McCain, one of the UK’s leading potato product manufacturers.
Graphene is one of the strongest artificial materials in the world and a good candidate for a new sustainable building material – if it weren’t for the difficulties inherent in producing it at a mass scale…
Because graphene is comprised of a singular layer of atoms, using it as a building material has been notoriously difficult. Scientists have experimented with 3D printing with graphene, but it’s currently still in the early stages of development.
However, Concretene – a graphene/concrete composite – has been developed jointly by the University of Manchester and UK construction firm Nationwide Engineering. The material requires no steel reinforcement and contractors will need 30% less of it than standard concrete.
More than 4 billion tonnes of cement is produced every year, contributing to 4 billion tonnes of CO2 (not to mention the stress that cement and concrete waste puts on the UK’s landfills).
But a new product from Cambridgeshire-based David Ball Group (who happens to be SunSkips’ new neighbours) is drastically reducing the amount of CO2 necessary for its production.
Cemfree is an alternative to cement that lowers the carbon footprint that standard cement creates by up to 88%.
Anglia Water became the first water company in the world to start using Cemfree after pouring it into the base of a kiosk at a treatment site in Norfolk.
Bamboo can grow up to four feet in just one day, making it pretty much the most environmentally friendly construction material around.
Not only is bamboo easy and fast to grow (it actually continues to grow once it’s been cut down), believe it or not, it’s actually two to three times stronger than steel!
Beijing/Vienna-based architectural firm Penda is a big believer in using bamboo for urban development and has been working on designing modular bamboo structures that are so strong, they can withstand an earthquake.
Bamboo earns extra points as a sustainable building material for being fully biodegradable and compostable. Even scaffolding can be made from bamboo!
Lighter than styrofoam by up to 75 times while still being able to support 40,000 times its own weight, aerographite is an incredibly versatile building material.
Made up of a mesh of carbon tubing, aerographite can be compacted down and returned to its former shape without sustaining damage – in fact, it actually gets stronger for going through the process.
While it’s not a candidate to replace environmentally unfriendly building materials like concrete and brick, it can be used in water and air purification systems, as well as the automotive and aviation industries.
Glass, used mostly for windows in the construction industry, is not the worst material for the environment when it comes to waste. It’s 100% recyclable and even if it does end up in landfill, it doesn’t release any harmful chemicals.
However, glass isn’t the best insulator (it needs to be double glazed to provide any real protection) and it’s not as good for the environment as this more biodegradable, albeit unlikely substitute…
Using hydrogen peroxide (hair bleach) and other chemicals, researchers at Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology have been able to change the level of lignin in wood, which is what creates the wooden colour (and lack of transparency). They are currently looking into more environmentally friendly ways to achieve the same level of transparency (currently 90%)
Unlike glass, wood is a renewable resource and locks carbon in rather than using a lot of energy in its production. On top of all that, transparent wood is completely shatterproof!
Sunskips is dedicated to promoting sustainability in the construction industry. Get in touch on 01449 360 033 or 01223 976 543 to discuss how an experienced waste management service could save you money on your building site.