The global focus on slowing climate change and reducing carbon emissions is starting to impact how contractors in the construction and infrastructure space win pitches and tenders. With the environment becoming an increasingly important topic, the ability to meet sustainability and environmental management targets are already essential requirements of tenders, and will become more critical in the months and years ahead.
Waste reduction, prevention and recycling are proven to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly. They respond to an urgent need and incentivise a shift to a more sustainable way of working. The Solar Impulse Foundation states that we can prevent climate change through renewable energies, waste management and recycling. In addition, we can benefit from a circular economy model that embraces the 3Rs (reduce, re-use and recycle) to significantly reduce waste and minimise unnecessary waste production of new items.
The infrastructure sector accounts for about 70% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, with Infrastructure Australia saying the sector must lead the charge in adopting low carbon technology .
Why are we changing?
The economic model of ‘take, make, dispose’ is the leading cause of waste ending up in landfill. In Australia, waste wasn’t necessarily front of mind until China implemented its National Sword Program in 2016-17, thus rejecting Australia’s waste exports. At the time, Australia discovered it was not set up to comply with the contamination limits expected by other Asian countries, which meant we needed to find our own solutions for the millions of tonnes that previously went to China every year. Notably, Australia is not set up to manage or recycle its construction and demolition waste. For example, a 2019 audit of Victoria’s resource recovery sector found Melbourne is at risk of running out of landfill space as early as 2025 (Planet Ark).
The construction and demolition space generates enormous amounts of waste
The Australian construction and demolition sector accounts for 31% of the waste in Australia. This is partly due to the nature of the sector, but also because the conventional design and construction methods lead to significant waste generation (Aust Govt 2020 national waste report 2020).
2018-19 ABS statistics show that
- Australia generated 75.8 million tonnes of solid waste in 2018-19, a 10% increase since 2016-17. (ABS)
- The construction industry generated 12.7 million tonnes or 16.8% of total waste, including from road and rail maintenance and land excavation. (ABS)
- According to the 2020 National Waste Report (2020:x), Australia produced 27.0 million tonnes of masonry waste from the construction and demolition (C&D) sector, amounting to 44% of the country’s total core waste
- Over half of all waste was sent for recycling (38.5 million tonnes), while 27% was sent to landfill for disposal (20.5 million tonnes).
- The total waste generated by C&D grew by 32% per capita over a 13-year period, with most growth over the last 5 years. (National Waste Report 2020:12) Recycling of C&D waste doubled to 20.5 million tonnes since 2006-2007 (National Waste Report 2020:10), and construction waste increased by 22% since 2016-17. (ABS)
Waste will only increase in future, with the $300 billion that is projected to be spent on the public infrastructure pipeline.
We are literally drowning in waste
The issue is that between 2016 and 2017, more than 6.7 million tonnes of construction industry waste went into landfill across Australia. The rest was either recycled, illegally dumped, re-used, reprocessed or stockpiled.
Australia isn’t coping with the amount of waste being produced. As a result, governments are focused on adopting the circular economy concept, which is at the heart of waste policy to reduce dumping and increase re-use. (National Waste Report 2020:20)
The reality is that with the Asian restrictions on waste, the export bans and the major challenges in finding new markets for our recycled materials, the NSW government is relying on industry to step in and incorporate a much larger percentage of recycled content into the projects that will be developed from the infrastructure pipeline. (National Waste Report 2020:18)
The government set up the National Waste Policy Action Plan in 2019 to achieve a National Resource Recovery target of 80% by 2030. Although 81% of masonry material is recycled, used for energy production or exported, far less metal, timber, plasterboard, asphalt, rock and soil is recycled. According to the National Waste Report, NSW has increased recycling rates of C&D waste from 75% to 80% and plans to increase landfill waste diversion from 63% to 75% by 2021-22 (National Waste Report 2020:53)
How is this relevant to contractors in NSW?
The NSW Government is developing a 20-year Waste Strategy focused on delivering sustainable, reliable, affordable waste. The NSW Circular Economy Policy Statement released in 2019 provides a framework for implementing initiatives that promote durable design, maintenance, re-use, sharing and transforming products into services, remanufacturing and recycling.
As its first steps, the NSW Government intends to embed circular economy consideration in its decision-making and incorporate circular economy principles in its policies and strategies while planning the transition to a circular economy. It has mandated that waste and recycling data be collected from contractors to enable the state to make informed decisions. And with NSW’s infrastructure boom, NSW Government Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery Strategy 2014-21 sets the construction and demolition waste recycling rates at 80%.
What does this realistically look like?
The public sector, from the State Government level to local Councils, is now looking to the private sector to identify and develop more efficient waste management. They are ensuring that businesses that win infrastructure work address their requirements for efficient waste management, re-use and recycling to support the development of a circular economy. The focus is on:
- Reducing the environmental impact on water
- Diverting waste from landfill and an increasing recycling
- Waste is being sent outside the region because landfill sites are becoming too full
- Councils and NSW govt are
Making roads from recycled material is becoming the norm and the expected
It is becoming the norm for councils to specify the use of recycled materials in their infrastructure projects. TfNSW and SSROC (Southern Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils) lead the charge as part of a push for NSW councils to collaborate in setting policies and strategies. This includes procurement processes, where there is a focus on solutions to prevent waste from going to landfill.
There is a big push for councils to embrace the AUS-SPEC requirements for road works. These include:
- Using RAP in asphalt restoration
- The use of recycled concrete and crushed rock for backfill material
- Specifications around crushed quartz and crushed glass
- The use of guideposts made from plastic, rubber or similar materials
- Councils are now looking at how contractors are using recycled material as part of their Waste Management plan that includes how they are disposing the construction waste that can be re-used and recycled
Research on waste recycling by the University of Sydney Waste Transformation Research Hub provides a comprehensive guide for council engineers on how to best use recycled plastics, glass, asphalt, concrete and other materials for roads and pavements with TfNSW providing a register of providers that supply approved asphalt mixes
So what’s this got to do with winning work that is sitting in the pipeline?
The circular economy principles are here to stay and will remain a fundamental tendering requirement. Whether subcontracting to a Tier 1 or 2 or stepping into the head contractor role for more minor works, the key is to understand and embrace the philosophy and ensure that your documentation demonstrates, addresses and meets the environmental and sustainability requirements of TfNSW and local governments.
Winning tenders isn’t based on whether contractors believe they can deliver the service. There are 2 main components to winning work – the document and the people. Winning is based on whether the assessors have enough evidence in the documentation to demonstrate that the contractor they choose is the lowest-risk option for them. Environmental and sustainability management are becoming increasingly high-risk areas and so a significant component of the assessment criteria.
It is crucial, therefore, to ensure that you have clearly:
- Articulated your sustainability initiatives in each component of the project
- Demonstrated how each initiative will meet the government objectives and targets
- Documented your management practices to support these
So, a crucial part of winning work is looking at what they are asking for rather than what we want to say – which can be two totally different things.
Can we help?
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 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan p22 and Climate Works Reshaping Infrastructure for a net-zero emissions future Issues Paper March 2020 https://www.climateworksaustralia.org/resource/issues-paper-reshaping-infrastructure-for-a-net-zero-emissions-future/
 https://www.rmit.edu.au/news/all-news/2019/jul/construction-industry-waste-landfill – 12 July 2019
 Natspec Construction Project Report April 2019:1
 Media Release 2 Oct 2020 – Council supported research on recycled road material usage will help environment and economy – https://lgnsw.org.au/Public/Public/News/Articles/2020-media-releases/1002_recycling_research.aspx