Real sustainability 2: Measuring reuse sustainability

Somerset, UK – Why measure the sustainability of reuse? A salvage business may wish to give a customer the sustainability benefits of reclaimed bricks compared to new bricks. A client may need to persuade an architect why it is sustainable for woodwork from the demolition of a church to be adapted for reuse in the new building on the site. A government department may wish to assess how its reuse policies can be justified to the electorate. (Client and architect, government department and electorate, are interchangeable.)

Firstly a decision is taken on the social, environmental and economic factors to include or exclude from the sustainability report (see the list below). A decision is also taken on the boundaries of the study – these could be, for example, from demolition site to installation in a customer’s house. A list is made of the documents or information required for the study.

Added together these give the scope of what may be called the sustainability report, sustainability assessment, sustainability account, sustainability measurement, sustainability metrics or sustainability appraisal.

The stakeholders for the study must be contacted to give their approval.

This is not the end of the story. Sustainability is an iterative process which needs to be repeated periodically. At each iteration the whole process is reviewed and updated, and better data replaces the earlier data. Each iteration should make the sustainability report more accurate and therefore more credible.

A record should be kept of how and why decisions were made. Finally, the sustainability report should be preserved permanently to assist stakeholders in making future decisions. At the end of this process a high quality and accurate report should be obtained.

The report itself may be confidential, but it is considered better to be open, transparent and freely published – even though this might reduce its competitive advantage.

Sustainability covers the environment, society and economy. With respect to reuse of reclaimed building material probably the most important aspect of sustainability is energy – a subset of environmental sustainability. But if a comparative assessment is to be made – for example whether an Indonesian reproduction doorknob is more sustainable than an antique English doorknob – then aspects of social sustainability as well as environmental sustainability may need to be compared.

Sustainability checklist

A. Social aspects of sustainability
a) Local employment and labour conditions; child labour; forced labour; health and safety; freedom of association; right to collective bargaining; discrimination; discipline; working hours; compensations; management systems.
b) Local pollution prevention and abatement;
c) Local community health;
d) Local safety and security;
e) Local land acquisition and involuntary resettlement;
f) Local biodiversity, ecosystem services and sustainable natural resource management;
g) Local indigenous peoples and cultural heritage.
h) Larger issues surrounding society, culture and communities and social value or products or processes

B. Environmental aspects of sustainability
a) Air quality
b) Water quality
c) Land quality
d) Noise impact
e) Transport impact
f) Ecological impact
g) Water use
h) Waste and landfill usage
i) Biodiversity impact
j) Global warming potential
k) Stratospheric ozone depletion
l) Human toxicity
m) Acidification
n) Eutrophication
o) Ecotoxicity
p) Land use
q) Resource depletion and resource consumption
r) Photochemical oxidation

C. Economic aspects of sustainability
a) potential revenue for supply chain providers and manufacturers
b) the local economy in which the material has influence;
c) the local economy in which the supply chain providers and manufacturers operate;
d) the local economy in which the materials and products are used, and any local economies later in the supply chain;
e) the local economy that is affected by the reuse, recycling or disposal of the materials;
f) the national and/or regional economy
g) the international economy.

Tools, measurement and adjustments

The following are some of the tools currently available to measure aspects of sustainability. There are also software packages available which perform environmental LCA, but the author has limited experience of these, and those which have been assessed seem basic and inaccurate.

Social Accountability International SA8000 is an auditable certification standard based on International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Ethical Trading Initiative Base Code is based on key ILO conventions: employment freely chosen, freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, safe and hygienic working conditions, no child labour, living wages paid, humane working hours, no discrimination, regular employment, no harsh or inhumane treatment. Members are required to report annually on progress.

Methods of measuring the environmental aspect of sustainability include:
i) Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a tool for measuring environmental impacts through a material’s or product’s life cycle. It deals with quantification of global impacts, even though some of the impacts might be local or regional. ISO 14000 series covers LCA.
ii) Environmental impact assessment (EIA) is typically used to assess local environmental impacts to air, water, land and ecology, and nuisance. This can be qualitative as well as quantitative, and depends on the sensitivity of local environmental receptors. In the EU the EIA Directive 85/337 EEC, as amended by 97/11/EC and 2003/35/EC, measures the environmental impacts of major projects. Smaller-scale developments tend to be managed through national regulations.

Economic impacts of material selection may relate to a particular part of the life cycle, or to the entire life cycle, including:
1) any increases or decreases in total life cycle cost, including ongoing maintenance costs, replacement costs and intervals;
2) the likely impact of a particular materials selection on long-term profitability;
3) the cost of owning the material, balanced with the increase or decrease in value of the product when in use; and
4) a particular material selection resulting in costs internally that are otherwise borne by external parties.

Factors affecting material choice are economic impacts relating to: the whole life cycle of the material; procurement of the material; the material during processing; the material while in use; and the fate of the material at end-of-life.

The total cost of ownership is the sum of the acquisition cost, management and maintenance cost, and the cost of disposal. Management and maintenance costs can often be many times greater than the acquisition costs, and thus significant. Disposal costs are increasingly significant as landfill space decreases and taxes and regulation make some end-of-life options economically poor.

A number of concepts and tools can be used to establish the risks to economic sustainability relating to the use of the materials options. These include: externalities, life cycle costs or total costs of ownership; and materials cost flow accounting.

Externalities are costs or benefits not transmitted through the price mechanism. For example, the choice of a demolition contractor to recycle cast iron radiators at a lower sales price than a salvage dealer would be prepared to pay affects economic sustainability.
Life cycle costs or total costs of ownership include cost of extraction, manufacture, use, reuse, recovery, recycling, disposal or depletion and include financial costs; environmental and social costs, with a quantification of the numerical values of these costs; and an estimation of planning, design, construction and acquisition, operations, maintenance, renewal and rehabilitation, depreciation and cost of finance, and replacement or disposal.
Materials flow cost accounting (MFCA) is for internal use within an organisation and accounts for movement and waste throughout the life cycle of a material which helps the organisation to establish greater efficiencies and cost savings. ISO 14051 offers a standard methodology for MFCA.

And finally . . . eco-labelling, upcycling, downcycling and allocation

The jury is out on how to quantify the absolute sustainability benefits of reuse. A battle royal appears to be taking place between manufacturers of new products as to whose is more sustainable – with all saying theirs is best. Different countries appear to be taking different approaches to eco-labelling of sustainable new products – none yet tackling the thorny issue of reuse. Life cycle analysis uses a system known as ‘allocation’ to cope with recycling, with reuse tacked on as an afterthought, but this does not work. And how does an upcycled product compared to a downcycled one? Or a traditional product compare to a high-tech modern one? The series continues . . .

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Thornton Kay was a member of the committee which produced ‘BS8905: 2011 Framework for the assessment of the sustainable use of materials – Guidance’

Real sustainability 1: The reuse of reclaimed building material