Wavin Ireland’s Michael O’Donohoe describes how we can make the best use of plastic as the construction industry moves to a circular recycling model

Back in November, all eyes were set on the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow as the world looked to see how climate change could be brought under control with measures implemented by the 200 countries that attended. Amongst the headline topics of debate on coal, cars, cash and trees, the subject of plastic usage was discussed.


So how do we make best use of the plastic that we’ve already created within a circular recycling economy? Furthermore, how do we find the ideal ‘green’ alternative that retains all of the incredible properties of plastic to create the abundance of useful objects that we enjoy now – and is carbon net zero?

Plastic in construction
Within the construction industry, plastic is used extensively. The European construction sector uses some 10 million tonnes of plastic per year, which is a fifth of all plastic consumed by Europeans. It’s second only to packaging. From insulation and guttering to pipework and wiring, plastic is used across a wide and ever-growing variety of applications. With good reason too, as plastic has many unique features that are invaluable to the construction industry:
• Corrosion resistance and durability deliver longevity
• Safe and hygienic transportation of liquids, especially water
• Highly effective cold and heat insulation
• Low-cost raw material and production
• ­Sustainability through recycling (we’ll come onto this in a moment!)

Add the fact that plastic is so easy to use, maintain and innovate with and it’s clear to see why plastic has been one of the most beneficial substances to the progress of humanity for over a century. That said, there’s a lot of plastic out there and even if we had a green alternative that we could mass produce, we couldn’t just bury the 7.8 billion tonnes (source: Our World In Data) that is present globally in the ground and forget about it. So, we have a collective responsibility to make the best use of it.

Using the plastic we’ve got more wisely
The central issue isn’t with plastic itself. It’s with our one-directional economic model – goods are produced, consumed, then disposed of. The model assumes that we can enjoy endless growth without consequence because we have endless resources. But we don’t, so in this model it’s easy to see why plastic is seen as such a problem. Nonetheless, with ingenuity there are many ways to reuse plastic more wisely in a different lifecycle within the construction sector. The reality is that recycled plastics have all the key properties for use as construction materials. They’re strong and durable. They’re lightweight and waterproof. They’re easy to mould. And they’re recyclable.

Focused on greener alternatives, manufacturers in the construction industry are already turning recycled plastic into durable, reliable, truly sustainable building materials. In Wavin for example, as part of our robust sustainability programme called “Mapping the Future”, we are focused on being actively involved in creating a positive societal and environmental impact.  Our award-winning ‘Recycore’ technology has been developed using 50% recycled plastic in its soil and drain pipes, whilst retaining all of the properties of its virgin plastic equivalent. Same performance, same quality, but a greener environment. Pushing the parameters further, the Wavin AquaCell range of geocellular stormwater management solutions is now manufactured from 100% recycled material. It’s an encouraging start, but there’s much more to be done collectively.

At the most basic ‘bricks & blocks’ level, building materials made from recycled plastics are not yet widely used in the construction industry; prototypes have mainly been used for demonstration installations. Hence, it takes sea changes such as political will and consumer demand to drive more investment into research and development. The tide is beginning to turn though. There’s increasing pressure from society towards plastic pollution. Government and industry are engaged with the idea of a circular economy, potentially creating an opening in the market and a shift in people’s mindsets, with a view to welcoming recycled plastic solutions, along with other waste stream materials, as alternatives to conventional building materials.

Looking to the future
The future is beginning to look very different indeed. The scientific engineering community is exploring alternatives to traditional plastics such as polymers that occur naturally. As things stand, we should have optimism about the promising new technology that’s in the pipeline to supersede plastic. That said, plastic remains too valuable as a wide use material to be phased out any time soon. Inert and safe, plastic remains vital to society – way beyond our own industry, in everything from electronics to healthcare. But as we’re all too aware, misused it becomes at best an eyesore and at worst a threat to life.

So our collective responsibility is just that – to collect as much plastic waste as possible to re-use in a circular recycling economy. Everybody who uses plastic in their everyday lives is accountable and that’s pretty much all of us as things stand in the absence of an alternative ‘magic wand’ solution.

As with just about everything related to sustainability, we need to work together with what we have in order to make it work, while the scientists, engineers and similar pioneers push on with their quest to find more sustainable carbon zero alternatives. The time for action is right now.

Michael O’Donohoe is Country Director at Wavin Ireland


Denise Maguire   Editor of Irish Construction Industry Magazine & Plan Magazine

Email: denise@mcdmedia.ie      WWW.MCDMEDIA.IE         WWW.IRISHCONSTRUCTION.COM