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A golden opportunity for sustainable house building?

Chris Coxon of Eurocell discusses why the time is right for a more sustainable approach to house building.

With the Government’s ambitious 2006 pledge to make all new-build homes zero carbon by 2016 scrapped in 2015, the UK still has a long way to go when it comes to sustainable development.

This, teamed with the fact that the Government’s current target is to build of 300,000 homes per year until well into the 2020s – gives us a real opportunity to take a lead in sustainable building.

300,000 is a particularly high number given that those operating in the sector must be accountable for each of those properties and is expected to take the most ethical and sustainable course when overseeing the build process.

Sustainable building can broadly be defined as buildings that are designed to reduce overall environmental impact, both during and after construction, and consequently futureproofing homes. This doesn’t just include renewable energy features that can be specified into a home at design stage, but the carbon impact all materials utilised have.

So, what are the challenges to be met and where do building products – and specifically the commonly-used PVC-U products – come into the mix when it comes to a better environmental approach?

Tonnes of plastic

Plastic marine pollution is perhaps the biggest environmental issue of our time. Each year, it’s estimated that another eight million tonnes of plastic finds its way into the ocean – the vast majority of it in the form of ‘single-use’ plastic products like straws, cups, drinks bottles and carrier bags.

The scale of this is difficult to imagine but some of the results of our collective wasteful lifestyle choices have been published across all forms of media and social platforms – and it’s incredibly difficult to ignore.

So, with the majority of the British public now educated in the worldwide problem of plastic waste, there’s a greater onus on housebuilders, and those who manufacture and supply to them, to play their part in reversing the ‘plastic tide’.

The current bad guys are the single-use disposables like the straws and carrier bags – both of which have had the light shone upon them and have been condemned accordingly – but that doesn’t mean that manufacturers of other products can afford to get complacent. No bullet has been dodged.

The housing sector, arguably one of the most accountable for remaining sustainable and ethical, needs to balance its environmental responsibilities with its business needs and commerciality and adopt the most considered approach.

Part of this is to review its building materials and to specify products that are manufactured with sustainability in mind.

Public sector and PVC-U

Holding energy efficiency ratings equal to those of timber and aluminium, with better recycling capabilities, and pretty much maintenance-free, PVC-U products will always be widely used in the housing market which automatically means that the industry has a big part to play in influencing behaviour overall.

When it comes to sustainability, it’s the lifecycle of these products that demands the most attention and its manufacturers have a duty to ensure that they are working towards improving recycling rates, while reducing waste.

The windows industry, as a whole, has developed effective pathways for recovery and recycling used PVC-U, allowing old frames to be recycled and reprocessed into new products up to ten times without any loss of quality. When considering that the average PVC-U window frame has a life span of around 35 years before it needs to be replaced, that’s a lifecycle of over 300 years in total if it is properly recycled – hardly a single use plastic.

On the European stage, the Recovinyl initiative works closely with manufacturers, fabricators, installers and recyclers to improve PVC-U recycling rates and increase the efficiency of the recycling process. Its aim is to see 800,000 tonnes of recycled PVC-U in use across the EU by 2020; that’s no mean feat.

What next…

Building products firms need to review and overhaul their practices and ensure that they are using the best possible methods of recycling with a view to re-manufacturing new PVC-U products from old windows and doors. Even offcuts and waste from the production line can be recycled to avoid it finding its way into drains, rivers and the ocean.

By researching and trialling new methods and working with fabricators and installers to make it easier to return old frames for recycling, companies operating in the windows industry can make themselves more attractive to those housebuilders who are constructing UK homes.

Housebuilders, for their part, should demand nothing less than the most sustainable products and take the time to look into their windows and doors suppliers’ recycling procedures.

Of course, this is only a very small part of the story; the whole sector has a part to play. It’s a shared responsibility and it’s up to all of us to get our recycling processes in line and to act with a sense of duty and a respect to the environment – before it’s too late.

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