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The construction sector, responsible for 11% of global energy-related carbon emissions, could reduce its impact by nearly 60% through recycling. London emerges as a potential leader in sustainable building practices.

The construction industry, often overlooked in discussions about environmental impact, is responsible for a significant 11% of energy-related carbon emissions worldwide. However, a new report suggests that by recycling and reusing building materials, this figure could be slashed by almost 60%.

The report, "Closing the Circle," released by the Mace Group, a construction firm, highlights the potential for London to lead the way in sustainable building practices. The British capital is uniquely positioned for this role, with developers, lessors, and planning authorities all showing a keen interest in enhancing sustainability.

Recent legislative changes have further propelled the city towards greener construction. Since April, commercial landlords have been mandated to meet specific energy efficiency standards before renting out properties. In a notable move, the UK government recently rejected a proposal by Marks and Spencer to raze and rebuild its flagship store on Oxford Street, citing environmental concerns.

The demand for sustainable construction isn't just regulatory. London builders are witnessing a surge in clients wanting to enhance their Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) credentials. Zac Goodman, CEO of TSP, a B Corp property investment firm, emphasized their commitment to sustainability.

From 2011 to 2021, the City of London produced approximately 1.54 million metric tons of construction and demolition waste. By adopting recycling practices, an additional 900,000 tonnes of materials could be retained within the city's construction supply chain over the next ten years. This translates to a potential reduction of 11.8 million tonnes of CO2 emissions across London.

In the decade to 2021, the City of London generated 1.54 million metric tons of construction and demolition waste, Mace estimates, or 2.7 tonnes per worker. Cutting that could keep an additional 900,000 tonnes or almost 60% of materials within the City’s construction supply chain over the next decade. Over London as a whole, this would be 13.8 million tonnes — saving 11.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. One tonne of CO2 would fill a sphere about 32 feet in diameter.

Mace's study wasn't limited to London. It examined seven major cities, including New York, Paris, Madrid, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Rome. The findings were staggering: about 77 million tonnes of waste could be reintroduced into the supply chain over the next decade if construction companies prioritized recycling. This could result in savings worth £10.6 billion. New York emerged with the highest potential, with a possible 30.6 million tonnes of recyclable construction waste valued at £2.8 billion.

However, the transition to recycling isn't without challenges. According to Bloomberg, while reclaimed materials might be less expensive than their new counterparts, the recycling process can introduce additional costs, primarily due to the labor involved in reclamation and repair. Ged Simmonds, Mace's UK managing director, noted that the costs of new and reclaimed materials are often comparable. Interestingly, where consumers once preferred new materials, they now lean towards reclaimed ones when prices are similar.

David Weatherhead, senior design principal at HOK, an architectural and engineering firm, pointed out societal reservations about using "second-hand" materials. Yet, in historic cities like London, there's a cultural acceptance and even appreciation for reused materials. Goodman echoed this sentiment, noting that people value the heritage and sustainability of older structures.

London already boasts examples of this shift towards recycling. The former BT building on Newgate Street, set to be HSBC's new headquarters, is undergoing renovations that will double its size. However, 76% of its core structure, including concrete, steel, and stone, will be retained. Additionally, 1,500 tonnes of Portland stone cladding and granite are being refurbished and reused. Another instance is the repurposing of metal ceiling tiles at 100 New Bridge Street, which would have been discarded just a few years ago.

As the construction industry grapples with its environmental impact, embracing recycling and reusing materials offers a viable path forward. With cities like London leading the charge, there's hope for a more sustainable future in building.

Eunice is a sustainability writer whose passion is sharing accessible eco-friendly practices with GreenCitizen's global readership. She enjoys birdwatching during her downtime, often deriving inspiration from nature's resilience. An enthusiastic cyclist, she is also an ardent advocate of eco-friendly transport.

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