Yesterday I (Rochelle) and Matt from Evident visited the Green Gorilla waste processing plant in Onehunga, Auckland. Going into that visit I was a little bit cocky, thinking that I knew what happened with construction waste in Auckland and that maybe I actually perhaps really need to go on that visit. I am glad that I did go because what I saw there knocked my socks off. I work in the construction industry, and have done for nearly 20 years. In addition I am a Green Star and Homestar Assessor and therefore I would like to think that I am pretty, jolly knowledgeable about what happens to construction waste in NZ (and I now hate to say it, but I was comfortable with what we are doing). Boy have I changed my mind!
The visit was extremely eye opening, and really rather depressing. To be clear Green Gorilla itself was not depressing, they are in fact a shining light and source of inspiration for what could be possible. What was extremely depressing was the waste that I saw them processing.
The facility that Green Gorilla have is amazing (see the video above!). The very first thing I saw as I arrived was the charging points for the EVs. Most of the cars that the sales team drive are EVs. That is fantastic. And a lot of their processing equipment is electric as well as a trial delivery truck. That certainly started the day off on the right foot. However it went a little down hill from that point on.
Matt and I walked into Green Gorilla with a single, big question in mind. We want to use Green Gorilla to provide waste solutions on The Living House and our original plan was to ask what waste streams that can’t divert from landfill into recycling, with the idea that we would then attempt to do something else with those waste streams and document that part of our journey. However during the course of our tour it became very apparent that that was not the real question that we needed to ask. The actual question was "what waste can you divert from landfill?" This is the answer:
Concrete and heavy ceramic
While we were there in the plant watching the conveyor go past I saw plastic products and insulation offcuts merrily going past me on their way to landfill. In my ignorance I had previously assumed that these items would be diverted from landfill by Green Gorilla. But it turns out that they can’t do that and thus to landfill it goes.
By the time the insulation has gone in the skip and turned up at the processing plant it is totally soiled and no insulation manufacturer will take it back, and there are no other options for recycling insulation. So one of the biggest take home lessons I learned yesterday was insulation needs to be segregated at source, on site, and put into a clean bag (perhaps the very bag that it came in the first place). If it is kept clean it can be reused or recycled. If it is soiled by going in a skip, then it landfill fodder.
Plasterboard was another eye opener. If plasterboard comes to the processing facility in a skip then Green Gorilla can divert around 80% from landfill. However if it comes to them in their specialised plasterboard bags, then they can divert 100% of it from landfill. The have a special plasterboard crushing machine that takes the plasterboard and turns it into a raw material that is used by fertiliser and compost companies. However this brings my onto something that makes me want to cry.
Large sheets of usable plasterboard that are put in skips and sent for recycling. WHY! This is an amazing resource that a lot of people have spent time, effort, money and most importantly natural capital to create. Why is it going to a waste facility at all? Why isn’t it being saved and stored somewhere for reuse. Why isn’t it being transported separately to a resource recovery centre for people to come and purchase for small fix up and renovation projects. Why as a society are we allowing this rampant waste and consumerism to occur.
The next item on the waste diversion list totally sums this up. Whilst at the plant we were shown an enormous pile of waste pallets.
These pallets actually have a great future. They are chipped up and then purchased by Golden Bay Cement who use these chips to replace the coal they used to use to fire their kilns that dry the cement. Apparently they are currently replacing around 40% of the coal with this wood chip. So that is a great success story.
However what makes me so sad is the fact that these pallets are in the waste stream in the first place. A large number of them have probably only been used once and then put in a skip on a building site. Think about all the work and resources that goes into making a pallet. The years that go into growing the tree, the effort to fell the tree, the machining and labour to create the pallet. The trucking, the nails etc. And then it gets used once and skipped! It should be illegal to put pallets in skips. If they are falling apart then they should be broken down into individual timber pieces. If they can be fixed and reused as pallets, then they should be. Why doesn’t this happen?
The cynic in mean says $$. If people start reusing pallets, then demand for new pallets decreases, meaning manufacturers don’t need to produce as many and therefore they don’t need as many trees and jobs and growth are lost. This is a bad economic story, however it would be a great environmental story and it is one that needs to occur. If we want to survive on this planet we have to start questioning the way that we do things and look at our processes and call out the crazy things and make changes. Sending good and usable products to landfill and recycling is crazy. It needs to stop.
While Green Gorilla are doing fantastic work diverting waste from landfill, what they are doing is downcycling. As far as I am concerned recycling (or downcycling) is not an option. It is almost the equivalent of landfill and should be a last resort. The best waste is the waste that you do not create, and then if you do end up creating waste you should be trying to reuse that waste in its original form.
On the Living House project we are attempting to be zero waste and if that fails then we will be zero waste to landfill (because we pretty much have to be for the Living Building Challenge). This is tough and we have already hit road blocks on this journey. We will be documenting our particular journey to zero waste in different ways, including our Facebook page, these blog posts as well as some short videos and narratives that will be coming out soon. What I would like to share with you now is my thoughts on how we can all make a difference out there in the construction waste market.
Builders and construction workers
As far as I am concerned you guys (and girls) are key to this. You are working on the coal face and it is you who are putting the waste in the skip bins. Stop doing that! Here are some easy things that you can do to help:
Go and visit the Green Gorilla facility. Don’t just send the environmental managers. That is preaching to the choir. Send the people at the coal face. Send the workers who actually put the waste in the skip. Take your entire team to see what happens to that waste that they put in a skip. It will really open your eyes. Green Gorilla are happy to run tours. Just contact them Phil Yates firstname.lastname@example.org. They would love to take you on a tour of their facility.
Once you have visited their facility change your waste bin provider to either them or another company that can divert at least some waste from landfill. In Auckland there are two great companies that I am aware of that do this. Green Gorilla and Junk Run . If you do nothing else from my list except contact these companies and switch your bins to one of them, then you have still made a massively positive step towards reducing your impact on the environment. I’ve researched this and Green Gorilla in particular costs exactly the same as other skip providers in Auckland. So if it doesn’t cost any more then why on earth are you not using them! Call or email them now Clinton Jones email@example.com.
When you switch to Green Gorilla or Junk Run get them to also send you a separate bag for you to put plasterboard in. If you keep it separate then it can be 100% diverted from landfill. And stop telling me that you don't have the room on site to segregate waste. A small bag for plasterboard and another for insulation will not be there for the whole project and will not take up that much space. I'm confident that you can make it work.
Get another bag for insulation. Keep the offcuts clean and put them in this bag. When it is full send it back to your insulation provider. I’m not sure about Pink Batts, Mammoth or Knauf but Autex have confirmed to me that if the material is clean that they can put the offcuts back into the manufacturing process. This is a massive win and should be happening on every construction site. Alternatively take a photo of the bag(s) of off cuts and put it up on Trade Me, Civilshare (www. civilshare.co.nz) or a local giving page and sell/give it to someone who can reuse it. Whatever you do, don’t stick it in the skip bin. If you do that it will end up in landfill.
PVC pipe. If you put this in a skip it will also end up in landfill. Don’t do it. PVC is horrible and toxic and takes forever to break down. Collect it separately on site in another bag, and send it back to Marley who will also take it back and put it back into the manufacturing stream (if it is their pipe).
Contact Auckland Council (or whatever your local council is) and get a separate household recycling bin for your 'household waste'. I'm talking about your glass bottles, aluminium cans, plastic water bottles (but please stop using those entirely - they are bad for your health!). If you put these in the skip bin they will end up in landfill. Make sure you had a separate bin for your 'staff' waste and make sure you tell your staff WHY it is important that they use that bin for these items.
Quantity Surveyors (and builders)
Stop over ordering. Apparently it is a common practise to over order plasterboard and timber by 20% to allow for wastage. Are you kidding me!!!!! 1/5 of all building materials that we make is literally just being trucked straight to land fill. If anything defines the craziness of our current system, that has to be it! Only order what you need! Or even better order slightly less, when you are nearly finished measure up what we require to finish and then purchase only that (or get it from another one of your sites who may have extra!)
New Zealand Green Building Council
Stop giving the waste industry a free ride. While Homestar v4 does have a point for on site segregation for the number of points on offer for waste greatly exceeds our expectations of the industry. The site waste management plans that we accept are pathetic and are just a token nod in this direction that people write once and then put them on a shelf never to be looked at again. These SWMPs are a waste of points if the builders are co-mingling waste on site and using someone like Green Gorilla to sort it out for them elsewhere. This smacks of passing the buck and green building rating tools should be encouraging builders to take responsibility for waste on site, not giving them lots of points for business as usual.
More points should be given for on site segregation and we should be focusing on specific waste streams like PVC and plastics that are used on site and that go straight to landfill all the time. Timber, steel, concrete, plasterboard are all easy wins these days. We need to start focusing on the harder issues as well.
Homestar is actually in a good place when compared to Green Star. Green Star's waste points are quite frankly a travesty. We should be adopting the GBCA's waste credits immediately.
This is all feedback that I have given in various formats before so it shouldn't be news to the NZGBC, however for the rest of you out there in the market, you should think about this as well and if you agree you should contact the NZGBC and also tell them your thoughts on how you think green building rating tools should be encouraging change in the market. We hear a lot from the industry about how hard it is, and how they can't fit more than one bin on site, and how they can't do this or that, but my experience is that once you change the way you approach things, and try something difference (or if you are forced to make a change) then it quickly becomes a habit and you wonder why you ever did it the other way to begin with. We need to do that with construction waste. And we need to start now!
Architects and engineers
I see you as the biggest part of this waste problem. You design the buildings that the builders have to build and you design in massive amounts of waste. The entire way we build here creates waste. Light weight timber framed construction should be banned in my view (if I was in charge that would be done tomorrow!).
We have quite specifically not used this approach on the Living House and we did that for two reasons. Well actually three. Maintenance, durability and waste. The standard timber framed wall uses at least 14 different products and materials in it (take a look here https://www.livinghouse.org.nz/rammed-earth ). All of these materials create their own forms of waste. For example you have paint tins, paint brushes, plasterboard sealing tape, masking tape, plastic drop sheets etc. The list goes on and on. And all of it goes to landfill. The Living House is being built out of rammed earth. We have eliminated all of these waste streams before we start building through our choice of wall structure. AND THIS WAS DELIBERATE!
So architects, the biggest thing that you could do to help, is to stop designing waste in the first place. Stop designer light weight timber framed walls with weatherboard/brick veneer/metal cladding etc and start designing out of insulated solid block work walls, double skinned brick, SIPS, hemp, straw bale, rammed earth etc. All of these alternative options are possible and easily doable. You just need to start doing.
SIPS in particular is really starting to come into its own. I would encourage you to use these products in their raw form, please don’t use SIPS and then strap and line it with plasterboard. That is just designing waste in again. Use and expose the beauty of the raw SIPS boards. Seal them with a natural beeswax. Keep the thermal mass of the brick or concrete. Put the insulation on the inside of these walls. Just start thinking differently. It has already been done by others, you just need to start doing it as well.
I'm sorry this is a long blog. It is an important issue and is something that we do really badly here in NZ. I would encourage you to share this blog widely if you like it. Try and get it in front of builders, architects and home owners. I see this as the very start of a conversation about construction waste and what we can change. The more people we can involve the better.
Keep tabs on our as we complete our zero construction waste journey and see how we go as well. Learn from our mistakes and our lessons.
Our biggest mistake to date has been not storing our insulation offcuts well enough. These are now soiled and can't be taken back by Autex. We have however found someone who is going to use them to insulate the walls of an old bus, so we have kept them our of landfill. But in the future we will make sure that we protect and store our insulation offcuts better so we can return them to Autex.