The Role of Recycled Materials in Construction Projects

October 10, 2023

Here we’ll take a moment to differentiate between reused materials vs recycled materials. An example of reusing materials could include taking a beam from one location and reusing it again in another, whereas recycling the beam would involve melting it to create something new from the steel. Reuse is preferable in the circular economy as recycling typically involves significantly more energy in the process.

According to a publication from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); waste from Construction and Demolition (C&D) activity is the largest waste stream in the EU and represents one third of all waste produced within the EU. The quantity of C&D waste managed nationally has shown an increasing trend in the period 2012 to 2019, with 8.8 million tonnes of C&D waste managed in 2019. This growth trend is expected to continue over the medium to long term in line with planned delivery of housing and infrastructure projects described in Project Ireland 2040. With such enormous quantities of waste being produced the potential for recycling and reusing materials is abundantly clear so let's answer the question; why would you want to implement this on your next construction project?

The Benefits of Implementing Recycled Materials in Construction Projects

First up is the bottom line – cost savings. With a few exceptions, it’s usually cheaper to purchase used vs new materials. But the savings don’t stop there. Reducing material and waste disposal on sites means also reducing the costs and resources associated with that disposal. Add to that the potential for tax breaks through incentives to use recycled materials, green building loans, grants or funding (e.g. European Regional Development Fund) and you’ve got a myriad of savings on top of just the material costs.

Next up is the lowered environmental impact and reduction in CO2 emissions. Removing the need for high energy outputs and extraction of natural resources results in a sustainable impact on the planet and assists in meeting ESG targets. Not only does this improve your companies’ PR it gives a marked competitive advantage as consumers look to brands to deliver on their sustainability targets.

Using recycled and reused materials can even help with a very particular bugbear of many clients; the planning and permitting process. By limiting landfill waste and demonstrating a proactive and engaged approach to the environment and the community, you will be contributing to wider sustainability goals and increasing your compliance with local and national planning requirements. Focusing on positively impacting society in this way will demonstrably raise your chances of approval. In the UK for example 75% of District, County, Single-Tier Councils and Combined Authorities have declared a Climate Emergency and so give preferential treatment in tenders where environmental considerations have been taken into account.

Utilising reused and recycled materials will also complement any other aspects of eco-design on your construction project. For example, if you are targeting certifications like LEED or BREEAM then you are more likely to achieve a higher rating.

Challenges and Considerations of Implementing Recycled Materials 

As with every step of the construction process there are potential challenges which need to be considered. The performance of construction and building materials is vital, not only in terms of longevity but also in terms of safety. Recycled and reused materials must be carefully assessed in terms of their quality and condition to ensure compliance with technical and legal regulations.

Another potential issue arises when repurposed materials come into conflict with other target environmental initiatives. For example, the overall energy efficiency of the building may be higher with a virgin synthetic material compared to a recycled material so informed decisions on the best trade-off will need to be made.

If you are planning to reuse or recycle materials from a demolition project, you need to make sure you have found the most cost-effective way to deconstruct. For example, is the building modular allowing for easier reuse or will you need to use a wrecking ball and utilise a specialist to recycle these materials for usability. Sorting and reusing can be costly so these decisions need to be carefully considered from the outset.

This leads to the last considerations we’ll mention here which are transport and time. Do you have enough time in your programme for the recycling process? How close are you to the recycling facilities and specialists needed? How close is the demolition project to your project? Investigating the time constraints, particularly in regard to demolition, transport, and recycling, and the costs associated with all three are key.

What are the current trends in recycled materials?

One of the most popular recycled materials used in construction today is reclaimed wood. Reclaimed wood has been salvaged from old buildings or structures and given a new life in modern construction projects. Reclaimed wood is not only environmentally friendly, but it also adds a unique character to a building, which is difficult to replicate with new wood.

Another trending recycled material in construction is recycled plastic. Recycled plastic can be used in a wide range of applications, including insulation, roofing, siding, and decking. Recycled plastic is durable, lightweight, and resistant to moisture and pests, making it an excellent choice for outdoor construction projects.

Recycled metals are also gaining popularity in construction. Scrap metal from old buildings and structures can be melted down and repurposed for use in new construction projects. Recycled metal is durable, energy-efficient, and offers a low carbon footprint, making it an excellent choice for sustainable construction.

Finally, recycled concrete is another popular option in sustainable construction. Recycled concrete is made from crushed concrete and other materials and can be used in a wide range of applications, including building foundations, retaining walls, and roadways. Recycled concrete offers excellent durability and strength, making it a popular

Considering your options: where to start?

The use of recycled and reused materials needs to be considered from the very beginning at the design and planning stage. Everyone from the architects to the engineers, from the contractors to the client plays a part in ensuring the highest rate of recycling and reusing can be achieved. Utilising tools like Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) and Green Building Rating Systems (GBRS) such as LEED and BREEAM can allow for easier comparisons between the choices available and their potential pros and cons.

From steel to plastic, from topsoil to fixtures there is incredible potential for recycling and reusing on every construction project whether it’s new build or retrofit. While you may not go as far as the Zig-Zag House in the US which used recycled bottle-green polycarbonate skin, the important thing is making the right choices for your project, choices that also fit your ESG and wider business goals.

If this is something you’d like to discuss further, you can get in touch with Head of Sustainability Scott Caldwell at

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