This article was produced for the Institute of Government and Public Policy as part of the National Energy and Sustainability Show. Read the article on the IGPP website here.
The Institute of Government and Public Policy’s National Energy and Sustainability Show is set to take place on the 28th of February 2023. Promoting discussion and debate on the current energy crisis in the UK, the conference will seek to share innovative solutions to tackle real-world problems.
While it will consider how to improve our green energy production, the conference will also address ways to conserve energy. Understanding and tackling the effects that wastage is having on the climate is an important aspect of this.
Ahead of the event, this case study explores the environmental impact of wastage in the construction industry. It does so through the topic of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), as one aspect of wastage, and suggests ways in which PPE wastage can be reduced.
Wastage in the construction industry is widespread and well-studied. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs reported that the UK produced 222.2 million tonnes of waste in 2018, and 62% of that was attributed to the Construction, Demolition and Excavation (CDE) industry. In addition to this, the UK Green Building Council estimated in 2021 that the UK built environment contributes 25% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.
While the UK is making strides in reducing waste, recovering 92.3% of unused material in 2018, there is a need to focus on utilising materials more efficiently to avoid the build-up of waste to begin with. Without proper planning and waste management solutions construction materials are produced, shipped, transported to site and discarded needlessly, and every step in that process has an energy cost and environmental impact.
Considering the environmental impact of Personal Protective Equipment
One branch of the construction supply chain which is acutely aware of its energy cost is PPE supply.
The production of the textiles used in PPE can be extremely resource intensive, as it requires tremendous energy input to weave fibres, dye fabrics, and produce chemically complex synthetic materials. And a large proportion of the PPE used in the UK is produced offshore in countries like China, so there is an associated energy and emissions cost of shipping the products around the world. Before the first brick is laid, a construction site has already developed an energy cost in outfitting their workers with the PPE they need to ensure they are safe.
To construction companies pursuing sustainability, the scope of this issue might appear overwhelming, but the solution to mitigating PPE’s energy cost is the same as any other resource – responsible management.
In April 2022, the Personal Protective Equipment at Work (Amendment) Regulations, were updated which effectively states that all employers are required to provide appropriate PPE to all workers, both permanent and temporary, on their site. This change in the law will increase the amount of PPE employers will have to procure and stock, so it is important that the construction industry manages PPE efficiently and avoid overconsumption.
Sustainable Personal Protective Equipment solutions for the construction and energy industry
As part of the circular economy, the rental model of sourcing PPE can be beneficial to large construction and energy firms, as stock handling is outsourced and forecasting PPE requirements are simplified by measuring needs in shorter timeframes.
Renting PPE also means that the service provider conducts industrial laundry and maintenance to ensure performance compliance throughout the product’s lifecycle, whilst extending the lifespan of the product by keeping it in good condition for as long as possible. Companies like phsBesafe recommend industrial laundry for their Hi-Vis, as the average lifespan of a regulation-compliant garment increases from 25 washes to 50 with appropriate care, and launderers can make small repairs to keep garments in the best possible condition. Ensuring the construction sector looks after its PPE can reduce the need for disposable garments, meaning fewer energy costs in manufacturing and transportation.
Sustainability is becoming an increasing focus for textile manufacturers feeding into the PPE supply chain, with companies like Meryl Fabrics® offering to take back garments at end-of-life to recycle them in new materials. Some PPE suppliers are also swapping to nearshore manufacturing solutions in places like North Africa, promising shorter shipping routes with less carbon emissions.
Construction companies and public organisations can also consider purchasing reusable or long-life PPE instead of disposable items where possible, as although the upfront cost of reusable items is higher, they can be more efficient long-term investments and save energy costs in manufacturing and shipping. Evaluating the origin and production methods of PPE before purchase promotes the use of responsible suppliers who are equally invested in sustainable practice.
What happens to Personal Protective Equipment at its end-of-life?
The final aspect of responsible management is end-of-life solutions. PPE is ultimately there to protect workers, so when it no longer complies with regulation standards, it must be disposed of appropriately. Unfortunately, there is a global lack of care for end-of-life garments, with just 1% of textiles being recycled back into new textiles, according to WRAP, a climate action non-governmental organisation.
The UK sends 350,000 tonnes of textiles to landfill every year, but with sufficient management, there is no need for PPE to add to that total. Many PPE suppliers in the UK such as PULSAR, BAM Site Solutions, and Bryson are offering to take back PPE at end-of-life and recycle it for reuse in new garments, and products, or to convert it into fuel for green energy.
Zero-landfill for PPE is already possible through these initiatives, reducing the energy lost in sending the materials in PPE to landfill and feeding back into the circular economy. Even if a PPE supplier does not offer this service themselves, there are many waste management companies which will find appropriate recycling solutions. There is no longer any need to dispose of PPE in landfill when there are so many companies willing to take end-of-life garments back from end users.