With the new Government strategies for housing and infrastructure, we must deal sustainably with demolition and construction waste as there will soon be no site in the Dublin region licensed to deal with it. PJ Rudden reports

At the recent Construction Industry Federation (CIF) Annual Conference, I noted that builders’ waste material – or ‘construction and demolition waste’, as it is officially called – is growing hugely in the Dublin area over the past year or two and there will soon be no site in the region licensed to deal with it.

Unless adequate licensed capacity is quickly available by middle of 2017 at the latest, the current situation will seriously impact on the current ramp-up of major housing and infrastructure projects, for example the ‘Rebuilding Ireland‘ housing strategy, the National Children’s Hospital, DIT Grangegorman, Dublin Airport’s second runway and many more.

Construction and demolition (C&D) waste is almost entirely a non-hazardous industrial inert waste generated by the building industry. A large proportion (50-80%) of C&D waste consists of inert soil and stones excavated out of the ground to provide deep basements, underground car-parks and general excavation on sites.

The remainder is generally called ‘builders’ rubble’ and comes from building sites, household skips from house renovations and from DIY. This consists of blocks, bricks, concrete, tarmacadam, timber and the like.

Two characteristics of C&D distinguish it from other waste streams. Firstly, its relative volumes are huge, in many millions of tonnes in comparison to household and commercial waste. Secondly, it is highly recyclable when separation and crushing facilities are available.

During the Celtic Tiger era of the early- to mid-noughties, the construction industry in Dublin alone created 7.7 million tonnes in 2007 – almost double the 3.9 million tonnes created in 2003. The quantity of C&D waste in the whole of Ireland in 2013 was approximately 2.9 million but, in the past few years, it has started to grow again reaching some 5.1 million tonnes per annum.

That growth will continue, but likely not to the peak levels of 2007/08. Significantly, though, the quantity of soil and stone waste grew by 75% from 2013 to 2015.

Construction waste and lack of landfills

To put these figures in some context, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), C&D waste arisings peaked at 17.8 million tonnes in 2007, when total municipal household and commercial waste collected at houses and offices also peaked at 3.2 million tonnes per annum. Total municipal waste in Ireland was 2.7 million tonnes in 2012 and has been declining since the peak of 2007.

In 2016, most household and commercial waste in Ireland is recycled and incinerated abroad, pending construction of sufficient waste treatment facilities in Ireland.

You might ask what has the building industry as a waste producer been doing to deal with the highly variable soil and builders’ rubble all these years? I would say that it has been dealing with it adequately up to now, in line with Government policies.

Since the last high building activity ended in 2007/08, there is a whole new waste policy and regulatory landscape in Ireland. In 2012, the then Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government in the policy statement ‘A Resource Opportunity: Waste Management Policy in Ireland’ anticipated the move to a ‘circular economy’ model to rely entirely on recycling and recovery and to eliminate landfill entirely by 2020.

The number of landfills in Ireland in 2009, for instance, was 30 municipal and four inert sites. Currently there are only four active municipal landfills in Ireland.

Apart from the lack of inert landfill sites, there is also stronger regulation on active sites to comply with new EU legislation and regulation, particularly with regard to habitats. Neither can C&D waste be incinerated, as it is inert and cannot be combusted.

Currently, there are three municipal landfills in the Greater Dublin Region at Drehid, Co Kildare, Ballynagran, Co Wicklow and Knockharley, Co Meath. There are no inert sites currently open. Two major inert sites in Dublin are licensed by the EPA but both closed this year in September as they had reached their allocated annual intake tonnage quota set by the EPA.

There is therefore currently no active inert landfill in the Dublin region until 1 January 2017, when both sites can reopen. Meanwhile there are planning and EPA licences in progress on other sites. In the interim, builders’ waste from the Dublin region has to go to licensed and permitted sites further afield.

Need for recycling of C&D wastes

To avert a short-term crisis that could potentially affect economic recovery, apart from soil and stone waste for recovery, construction and demolition materials such as blocks, bricks, concrete and macadam will also have to be dealt with to ensure that they are managed in an environmentally safe way. These C&D wastes can be recycled, as there are many similar type facilities available in other EU states. For example, Denmark recycles 87% of its non-soil C&D waste.

The Irish construction industry, led by the CIF, took this ‘producer responsibility’ seriously in early 2002. In consultation with Government, the industry firstly set up an informal C&D Waste Task Force and then, in June 2002, set up the National Construction and Demolition Waste Council (NCDWC).

This was established as a voluntary initiative to deal with the then growing issue of C&D waste in the Irish economy. The NCDWC has representatives from Government, contractors and professional institutions, including Engineers Ireland.

In July 2006, Best Practice Guidelines for the Preparation of Project Waste Management Plans were agreed and published by the then Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which issued them to local authorities to enforce as part of planning permission conditions on new building and demolition projects. The guidelines included technical thresholds above which project waste plans would apply. This new regulation has proved quite effective.

Recycling plants for builders’ rubble in Dublin and other regions were set up during the period 2003-2006, although it was difficult to get a viable market from clients on construction projects for recycled product. Nevertheless, the plants continued to operate with much success until 2008, when the construction industry virtually collapsed with severe recession.

With the new Government strategies for housing and infrastructure, we need to reinvent the national approach to deal sustainably with construction and demolition waste. We need to create a recycling economy in the construction industry.

This needs to be based on ‘circular economy’ zero-waste principles to prevent and minimise, reuse, recycle and recover – principles which are now underpinned by the three new Regional Waste Management Plans adopted by the Eastern-Midlands, Southern and Connacht-Ulster Regions in 2015.

PJ Rudden, BE CEng, FIEI, FICE, FCIWM is a director in RPS Group and former president of Engineers Ireland

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At the recent Construction Industry Federation (CIF) Annual Conference, I noted that builders’ waste material – or 'construction and demolition waste', as it is officially called – is growing hugely in the Dublin area over the past year or two and there will soon be no site in the...