Plastic usage is one of the big issues that needs to be addressed to protect our environment. And it’s one that the construction industry can play a major role in, due to the large amount of plastic it uses and plastic waste it generates.
One veteran of the industry is keen to inspire the change in practice that’s needed. He’s Neal Maxwell, whose business is mostly focused in the northwest of England. He was on a 60th birthday trip when he had a revelation that led him to create an organisation called Changing Streams.
A Road to Damascus moment
Neal Maxwell had a Road to Damascus moment when he was on this holiday of a lifetime on a cruise ship around the Arctic. It was packed with scientists, experts on the environment, experts on pollution and climate change. So there were lectures as well as different social occasions on the ship. And they actually went out onto icebergs and on to ice sheets. But they were shown the upshot of plastic pollution in the oceans. And Mr. Maxwell was shocked at the level of plastic pollution.
For example, they were showing pictures of walruses and whales and so on. They were showing their stomachs after autopsies. They had ingested plastic pollution, even in small levels, which killed a lot of the wildlife.
The global picture of what plastic production is doing
Just to give you a global picture of what plastic production is doing, it isn’t just polluting oceans, and endangering sea life in the Arctic and other parts of the world, even in warmer climates. It’s also adding to greenhouse gases.
A report by the Centre for International Environment law in 2019, said that plastic production and incineration will add over 850 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. They say that’s the equivalent of emissions from 189 coal-fired power plants 189.
And if this continued these emissions by 2050, which is 10 years after Neal Maxwell’s aim to reduce plastic in the industry to zero, it could rise to 2.8 billion metric tonnes. In other words, it’s going up. So even though we’re closing a lot of coal-fired power stations around the world, the incineration and production of plastic is adding to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. So it’s a major player, not just in terms of pollution, but also climate change itself.
The British construction industry
He investigated his own business and found out that the British construction industry trades in about 50,000 tonnes of plastic waste each year. And he was quite shocked by that.
Now, there was another road to Damascus moment when he got back from the Arctic Circle to Liverpool, his native city. He was in a supermarket and he saw all the products that were covered by plastic, having been told about the damage it’s doing to ocean life, he basically ran out of the store. He was so frustrated and angry about the use of plastic, but he thought he had to do something different. The only thing he felt he could do to make a difference is to look at his own industry, where he’s earned a living for the last three decades.
So he founded this non-profit organisation, in 2018, called Changing Streams. He’s drawn up a programme for the construction industry and the aim is to make the British construction industry plastic-free by 2040.
He has teamed up with a number of academics from the University of Liverpool from the School of Environmental Science, oceanographers, people involved in monitoring the climate and monitoring pollution. They’ve come up with a couple of basic steps to reduce the production of plastic waste in the building industry.
Plastic in paint
Plastic was not always in paint. I mean plastic is an invention from the 1950s from a US multinational. So on the back of that, he proposes the establishment of a traffic light guide to warn which paints contain plastics. There are some paints on the shelves of DIY stores and suppliers that don’t contain plastic. So he wants a traffic light system printed on tins of paint to dissuade, for example, DIY consumers, even our painters and decorators, and so on, tell them which paints contain plastic and which don’t.
What they’re also doing is proposing the end of use for things like plastic wrapping for building materials like bricks and cladding. So they’re looking at alternatives. For instance, bamboo was suggested as one potential for wrapping up building materials. They’re also planning to build a template house, probably within the confines of the university, that is made entirely without plastic, something that can be studied as a model for housing in the future, which will not have the by-product of plastic pollution.
One argument Neal and others put forward for shifting away from using plastic in the construction industry is that until around the 1950s, it wasn’t used, because it wasn’t widely available. And we have moved away from other harmful materials, notably asbestos due to its negative impact on health.
But what about the cost?
The key question, of course, is what’s it gonna cost and I think that is his biggest hurdle he has to climb over. Which is can he persuade, hardheaded, business-minded, profit-driven fellow builders like himself to move towards a plastic-free industry.
One of the things they will be doing as well as drawing up this charter to make the industry plastic-free, starting with paint, for example, is petitioning the government and future governments to adopt this as legally binding regulations, in the same way, they have done so over things like asbestos, but also to petition, for example, large pension fund providers, which finance construction in certain areas to adopt the charter as well.
There will be a campaigning aspect to Changing Streams to persuade political leaders and industry leaders that this is the way forward. And you know, given the focus on green energy, renewables, the advance of the electric car, and so on, we see that going in a green direction anyway. He thinks he’s part of that – he’s surfing that wave.
I also spoke to Dr. Gareth Abrahams, who’s working with Neal Maxwell and he points out that the university and Liverpool are actually aiming to construct some plastic-free accommodation on its campus and when I was last there, but just before the pandemic broke out, you could hardly hear yourself think or speak, the amount of drilling going on and work going on at the campus.
So one of their projects is to say is to create the first-ever plastic neutral commercially viable house, because they want to show the building industry this can be done. And through things like coding paint and other materials, they want to change consumer behaviour and that includes consumers who are buying houses or renting houses. And indeed, landlords as well.