CAB’s Tale of Two Camps

by Phil Slinger – CAB Chief Executive

There are some that would argue that we should immediately stop using products or materials in our buildings that create and embody carbon in their production. It is a noble thought, but is it realistic to suggest that we can achieve this and meet today’s building needs? Obviously we can and should be mindful of the embodied carbon content of materials we use in construction and if we can substitute alternative lower carbon materials, then we should.

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All construction materials have either, a single use life, known as ‘cradle to grave’, alternatively a material which offers second life, but in a reduced quality, or ultimately, a fully recyclable material such as aluminium known as a ‘cradle to cradle’ which can be recycled back into new products many times with no loss of quality.

But we still see metals, in particular, penalised because of their high embodied carbon content. these are still being put alongside materials such as timber and argued that metals should be avoided as they harm the environment. The issue was initiated back in 2012 when the standard EN15804 +A1 “Sustainability of construction works – Environmental product declarations – Core rules for the product category of construction products” was first released. The standard looked at all products on a ‘cradle to grave’ basis, which included metals and this is still done today. If, for example, we look at the ‘Construction Material Pyramid’, aluminium is highly weighed on its Global Warming Index, in fact it is top of the pyramid. The ‘option’ to use module D of the standard allowed for a ‘cradle to cradle’ recycling approach but the problem is that it was left as ‘optional’ – a mistake in our opinion.

Hence we have two camps, those who would argue, possibly for their materials benefit, that Module D should be left as an option and those that believe that all materials should be viewed in a complete Life Cycle Analysis (LCA).

The Council for Aluminium in Building fully supports the ‘circular economy’ as aluminium is virtually 100% recyclable many times over with no loss of quality. Metals such as aluminium offer unique characteristics which are not available in any other material. CAB fully supports the approach that all materials should be subject to Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). As we continue to reduce the embodied energy within aluminium’s first production from a natural mineral known as Bauxite, using renewable energy resources, the material is then known as ‘Primary Aluminium’. In fact, aluminium has for many decades been produced using hydro electricity, so perhaps aluminium should be termed as one of the first ‘green’ metals to be produced.

Such is the demand for aluminium that virtually all used aluminium is collected and recycled. The International Aluminium Institute (IAI) released their latest global aluminium recycling report in 2020 which reported 75% of the almost 1.5 billion tonnes of aluminium produced since the 1880’s is still in productive use today. Over 30 million tonnes of aluminium scrap is recycled globally, this equates to approximately 33% of all our global current demand. As it takes just 5% of the Primary aluminium production energy to recycle aluminium there is such a high demand for scrap aluminium which retains its value, so utilising aluminium in building construction could be seen as a long term financial investment. This high value of scrap aluminium can go someway to help invest in replacement facades on existing buildings giving them a new life at a fraction of the cost of rebuilding. When we do undertake deconstruction at the end of buildings useful life, we can view our cities as local ‘Urban Mines’ for construction material, aluminium in particular being easily and efficiently being recycled back into the same products.

To achieve this goal CAB continue to pioneer a ‘closed loop’ recycling initiative which helps keep architectural grade extrusion alloys together in a single grade which both further maximises the value of the scrap aluminium and ensures it quality for future use. Closed loop recycling is not mandatory yet in the UK, but legislation does exist in other countries in Europe. All CAB members are free to join the scheme and proudly display their adherence to the scheme which is recognised by main contractors.

It is CAB’s opinion that whilst U values are an important demonstration of a building products thermal performance, the Government is becoming over reliant on this measurement. All new homes can be produced to be carbon neutral, but 80% of all our homes that will exist in 2050 are already built and continue to fall well short of being carbon neutral. So why do we not make incremental insulation improvements now that will reduce energy consumption? Together with a closed loop recycling initiative, incremental improvements in thermal insulation as technology advances, enables an incremental approach to reaching the carbon neutral goal for all our buildings.

Our systems company members are already seeing that large commercial properties are being refurbished, but, not all with the highest thermal performing window or facade systems. Updating building fabric, including windows and facades, offers an immediate payback with the energy saved in heating or cooling the property. In some instances this can be seen as a payback within a five year period. This makes an incremental approach to achieving carbon neutrality more realistic and one that will save both energy and costs in the short term.

We can all do our bit to reduce carbon construction, businesses can do a lot more to demonstrate their commitment to reducing their carbon footprint in both operations and products they produce. CAB are leading the way as the voice of aluminium in the UK and Ireland. As EPD’s (Environmental Product Declarations) begin to be requested on more projects CAB are in the process of producing generic EPD’s for their members demonstrating the environment credentials for the use of aluminium in fenestration.

CAB membership is open to any business that is part of the aluminium fenestration and envelope supply chain. Based at the picturesque Bonds’ Mill development in Stonehouse, CAB staff are always on hand during normal working hours to answer any membership, training or technical aluminium fenestration related questions. News and event information is regularly updated on the CAB website at www.c-a-b.org.uk and also in the Association monthly ezine ‘A Window Into Aluminium’ which is free to sign up to. If you are not a member of CAB and wish to learn more about membership, please contact Jessica Dean at the CAB offices by email jessica.dean@c-a-b.org.uk or telephone Jessica at the office on 01453 828851.