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Exploitation of natural resources for the built environment is a threat to nature and biodiversity.

What's going on

The UK’s construction industry is a major consumer of materials and resources. It also produces large amounts of waste – in 2018, construction, demolition, excavation and refurbishment activities produced around 138 million tonnes of waste, representing 62% of all waste produced in the UK [source].

The current unsustainable extraction of raw materials is one of the main activities that is pushing planetary boundaries into unsafe territories, contributing to air pollution, climate change and driving the loss of habitats and biodiversity as well as landscape degradation. Indirect impacts also arise from the pollution and GHGs linked to transportation, production and later disposal and waste management of materials.

Principal materials used by the construction industry are stone, primary aggregates, and metals (particularly steel and aluminium).

Iron ore, required to manufacture steel, is principally sourced from open-pit mines with heavy machinery, drilling and explosives used to extract ore – practices that scour natural landscapes, resulting in the loss of entire ecosystems from forests, mires, grasslands as well as lakes and rivers [source]. Concrete production also creates numerous environmental problems. From a natural resources perspective, the main issues are the use of water and the consumption of aggregates, especially sand.

The built environment is a major consumer of water resources. Globally, it accounts for around 50% of all water [source]. Water over-exploitation has several environmental impacts. Locally, depletion through over-extraction can damage ecosystems. At a broader scale, water pumping and treatment is energy intensive, which releases GHGs.

The construction industry can significantly reduce pressures on natural resources and the environment by consuming less materials, by applying more efficient designs and construction practices, producing less waste and using more recycled materials. There is strong need for upskilling across the sector on timber use in construction.

In the U.K., the construction industry has made large improvements when it comes to recycling rates. In 2018, the recovery rate of non-hazardous waste was 92% [source]. However, significant improvements to the efficient use of resources are still needed.

Designers can help by opting to use recycled materials or those which can easily be replenished, by looking to enhance material efficiency – making the most economical use of resources over the entire lifecycle of a building or infrastructure development including its components, and by using structural timber (also known as mass timber) in place of concrete and steel [source].

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Other positive steps include design initiatives based on waste hierarchy and circular economy principles – such as preventing over-ordering, opting to use suppliers that use limited packing, and designing buildings so they can be used as a source of components and materials at the end of their lifecycle, rather than ending up as demolition waste [source].

The built environment is a major consumer of water resources – globally accounting for around 50% of all water use [source]. To design more water efficient buildings, designers should aim to reduce daily water consumption from 140 litres per day to 125-80 litres per day by integrating water-saving technologies (such as low flow plumbing fixtures), rainwater harvesting systems, as well as grey water recycling, into building design.

To help lower the amounts of water used during construction, designers and planners can employ water management strategies such as using recycled water in concrete production or using data loggers and water audits to monitor the use of water on construction sites [source]. 

Getting nature positive

The UK construction industry can significantly improve material efficiency though planning and design by considering the waste hierarchy, the application of circular economy principles, and using water efficient landscaping, for example.

Inspired by steps buildings and infrastructure companies are already taking, we’ve compiled suggested actions to help you on your journey to getting nature positive.

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