Plastic pollution in the building industry

Plastic pollution in the building industry

Neal Maxwell is campaigning to highlight the problem of plastic pollution in the building industry. Professional Builder’s Lee Jones finds out more.

With our sights set firmly on containing the coronavirus, environmental concerns have been somewhat side-tracked of late, but in an uncertain future one thing we can be sure of is that they will swiftly return to the top of the agenda. Thanks to some shocking scenes on the BBC’s Blue Planet, plastic pollution has achieved special prominence in the public imagination, but one owner of a Merseyside-based refurbishment, fit out and construction company had his own very personal epiphany.

“On my 60th birthday we decided on a once in a lifetime trip to the Arctic,” explains the Chairman of north west-based, Aztec. “Whilst I never expected to return with anything other than good memories, it would prove to be life changing. We were based on a specialist ship adapted for the Polar regions, from where I had the opportunity to sea kayak around the icebergs and glaciers, and come face to face with some extraordinary wildlife. It was a magical experience, but from what we saw first-hand, and what the scientists who were our guides were telling us, we were confronted by the realities of climate change and pollution.”

This pristine and unadulterated paradise has a problem – and that problem is people. Walrus, who will consume 3,000 – 5,000 clams in one feeding session, are at the same time ingesting significant amounts of plastic, whilst polar bears are left stranded without food by the relentless retreat of ice floes.

Appalled by what he’d seen, on his return to the UK Neal was determined to do what he could to raise the issue of plastic pollution, and a conversation with Professor Jonathan Sharples at Liverpool University would give him the necessary direction. “Myself, Jonathan, Brendon Kenny and Dr Gareth Abrahams from the university’s School of Environmental Science have since set up Changing Streams, a not-for-profit organisation that is dedicated to eradicating the use of plastic. Given that the construction sector is the second largest producer of plastic waste, and it’s the industry I’ve spent much of my life in, our focus will initially be on the built environment, but we have ambitions to take the message much further.”

In fact, the avowed aim of the project is to eradicate plastic from the building industry within two decades. Neal explains how the Changing Streams focus differs from other environmental campaigns. “When we talk about sustainability a lot of space is devoted to CO2 emissions, and our carbon footprint, but not a lot is talked about the materials used. Given that there are still microbeads in some paint formulations, for example, it’s not always obvious what is actually in the products construction consumes, so we’re looking into a labelling system so that the solutions that are using alternatives to plastics can be easily identified.”

Changing Streams will work collaboratively with the industry and manufacturers to lead the way in developing innovative, new products and materials that reduce plastic content further. In partnership with the University of Liverpool, we are researching just how the makers of products, and their end users, can tackle what we have characterised as the new asbestos. We have plans to build a prototype house made without plastic, for instance, all of which is part of a process of education. There are relatively easy wins, as well, like the amount of unnecessary packaging that bricks are delivered to site in, or where alternatives already exist.”

In addition, the Changing Streams Charter will guarantee that its signatories are committed to a reduction in the use of plastic, and will include not only building firms but manufacturers, whilst the organisation is equally dedicated to lobbying government for legislative support. “I know from experience that contractors are more willing to change when it’s their customers that are demanding it, and winning a job might be on the line if they don’t, so we want to highlight this problem to everyone in the supply chain, and every size of organisation.”

Changing streams is also looking to attract members, host events, and workshops. Those members will take an active role in shaping the direction of the campaign, and Neal is adamant that sole traders and the owners of the very smallest companies can get involved. “The construction industry is a conflict business but what we want to introduce is collaboration,” he concludes, “and to do that we need expertise and experience from every level of the industry. We want small builders to engage with us and would encourage them to do so.”

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