By Kody Cook, Journalist, Infrastructure Magazine

Australia generated 12.7 million tonnes of construction waste in 2018, leading to the industry being criticised for hindering sustainability efforts, with the sector slow to adopt new strategies to help reduce its environmental footprint. However, new research by Bond University has found that if the construction sector wholeheartedly embraces new innovations, it could become a major player in the circular economy. Infrastructure Magazine spoke with an academic in Bond University’s Comparative Construction Research Centre, Dr Bode Ogunmakinde, to discuss how his research can help build a more sustainable sector.

Despite efforts by the construction industry to keep up with modern advances, adopt smart technology and implement innovative processes, one historical aspect of the industry remains the same – there is a lot of waste involved in building new infrastructure.

Due to the complicated and timeconsuming nature of minimising and recycling waste, many construction companies simply take the easier option of sending all of their waste to landfill.

This, coupled with a lack of confidence in reclaimed materials, means the construction sector has been lagging behind the sustainability efforts of other industries and has been slow to take on circular economy methods.

Why a circular economy?

A circular economy approach for the sector would see resources kept in use for as long as possible – to be recovered, regenerated, and reused at the end of their life cycle rather than being discarded as waste. In a circular economy, products and materials are designed for durability, repairability, and recyclability.

According to research by Dr Bode Ogunmakinde and his colleagues, trying new initiatives to reduce waste and applying a circular economy approach can drive innovative solutions and boost the economy.

The study found that, by applying a circular economy approach, the industry could actually play a strong role in increasing sustainable development and that it should be focusing on incorporating circular economy efforts into all future plans to help Australia achieve sustainability goals.

The study states that by adopting circular economy technologies and strategies, the construction industry can achieve sustainable development while minimising waste, reducing pollution, and conserving resources.

First steps

Dr Ogunmakinde said that the first step for the industry to embrace sustainable practices is research. “Over time research has shown as a way of providing solutions to most issues in the industry,” Dr Ogunmakinde said.

Dr Ogunmakinde explained that by conducting sampling across a range of construction projects, researchers can identify what kinds of waste are being generated, what materials the waste is being generated from, and how best to account for or reduce this waste in the future.

“The next thing will be for us to set priorities,” he said. Dr Ogunmakinde said that outlining priorities and targets across all levels of the industry will ensure that businesses and developers cooperate throughout projects to limit waste. “The next thing will be to train everyone that will be involved because if you set a target and you don’t have trained operators and workers, how do you expect them to achieve the target?

“Education and training is very, very important and for the industry to minimise waste in order to achieve the sustainable development goals, we cannot overemphasise education.” Finally, Dr Ogunmakinde explained that in order to encourage the industry to take on the initiatives and technologies put forth by the study, they need to be demonstrated and proven to be effective.

“Seeing is believing. They need to see that yes, by using this strategy or using this technique, we have been able to reduce waste generation to the barest minimum.”

Securing government support

Dr Ogunmakinde said that the Federal Government can help support the circular economy transition in the sector by providing tax incentives to organisations making an effort to use more sustainable designs, materials and processes.

“Another thing would be for the government to implement construction and demolition waste reduction targets. “As a nation, we should have a target that applies to any construction project in this country. Once we have that in place, everyone will have to work along that line.” Dr Ogunmakinde said that at the state level, the government can help incentivise circular economic practices by providing rebates to companies that participate.

“Also, the State Government can fund pilot programs or pilot construction projects to test the circular economy approach and circular economy business models, because a statewide approach in that area could encourage others to implement the circular economy principles as well.” Dr Ogunmakinde said that local governments and councils need to implement sorting and storage requirements for construction sites.

“At the moment, I know there are some local councils that enforce having waste bins and skip bins on the site, but that is not enough,” he said. “We need to have different skip bins for different waste generated on the site, so councils may need to enforce that in order to get things done.” Dr Ogunmakinde said that local councils should also be encouraging deconstruction over demolition, as it generates far less waste.

“Local councils should at all costs encourage deconstruction. In the process of deconstructing a building, we’re going to save a lot of material that can be salvaged and reused.”

The research – which recently received the 2022 Best Paper Award by Elsevier’s Journal of Resources, Conservation and Recycling – investigates a number of technologies that are expected to help reduce construction waste, and encourages the industry to adopt them sooner rather than later.

Technologies to reduce construction waste

Building Information Modeling (BIM)

Dr Ogunmakinde explained that BIM is a highly collaborative process which allows construction professionals and other stakeholders in the industry to come together at the start of the project and plan around waste management from the beginning.

“This will allow them to collaborate easily, and where you have collaboration right from the start you can actually predict what sort of waste will be generated, in which area the waste will be generated, and then that will help to minimise such waste,” Dr Ogunmakinde said.

Digital Material Passport

Dr Ogunmakinde explained that this technology makes use of a digital database which provides information or collects information about the material that will be used in a building.

“The material database, the digital material passport, will provide information about a material which will include the material composition, the manufacturer of that material, store information regarding the dimensions and the weight of that material, as well as the installation dates, the expected lifespan of that material, and if there are reuse or recycling potentials at the end of the life of that material.”

Automated Waste Sorting

Dr Ogunmakinde explained that this method makes use of AI and robotics to separate and sort waste material autonomously. “Most of the time the waste generated on site ends up in the landfill. However, much of the waste generated can actually be recycled if they were sorted appropriately.”

Dr Ogunmakinde said that the sorting necessary for recycling can be time consuming and complex, due to the different types of reusable materials that must be separated from each other. An AI-assisted machine is best suited for doing this task efficiently and accurately.

3D Printing

“3D printing is an interesting one. Through an automated process of manufacturing, components, part of a building or the entire building can be manufactured through the use of a 3D printer. “We can manufacture the windows for instance, we can manufacture the door, even the walls from 3D printers and then install them on the site.” Dr Ogunmakinde explained that by accurately prefabricating components offsite, waste is limited due to the reduction of offcuts and excess materials.

The Internet of Things (IoT)

Dr Ogunmakinde explained that IoT devices can help to track resources and energy flows in buildings and sites in order to identify potential efficiency opportunities on construction projects. “We can use the blockchain to track materials and equipment that are being used on the site in order to ensure that only certified materials are used, and by doing that waste can also be minimised.”

A global responsibility

Dr Ogunmakinde said that it is not just the construction industry that needs to step up. “The bottom line here is, we all need to do our part,” he said. Construction companies, governments of all levels, and even construction clients all need to be working together to ensure the success of circular economy initiatives.

“I’m hoping that in time, they’ll accept these techniques,” he said. “It’s about the environment, and we all need to do our part to ensure that we are not polluting the environment with the waste that we’re generating on construction sites.

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