In November last year, an issue that many building materials manufacturers have been forecasting for years finally reached the public consciousness. A factory in Scotland, built in the 1990s, was being demolished until the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) intervened to halt the work. SEPA had the full weight of the law behind them due to the environmental threat from the building’s commonly-used foam insulated sandwich panels.
The repercussions from this one intervention have rippled through the UK’s commercial building industry, as funders, owners, manufacturers, specifiers and demolition contractors are realising that, at the end of many buildings’ lives, massive and expensive clean-up operations are inevitable. And the question, which has yet to have a definitive answer, is: who foots the bill?
Demolition was halted at the building, the former Chunghwa television factory in Mossend, Lanarkshire; because the foam material is officially designated as hazardous waste, due to the presence of blowing agents that contain ODP (Ozone Depletant Potential) and pose a potential pollution threat to the water table. The CFCs and HCFCs used for blowing the foam are similarly harmful to the environment as the propellants in aerosols which caused such a media storm until they were banned in 1989 and 1994 respectively.
SEPA found that demolition contractors were stripping panels from the building, crushing them and sending them to landfill, releasing the harmful substances.
Today the most popular method of disposing of foam-filled sandwich panels is to crush them or burn off the foam to recover the steel. But this runs counter to EC Regulation 2037/2000, which states that, due to their make-up, these insulation panels must in fact be recycled in exactly the same way as refrigerators, and cannot be cut, crushed or disposed of by any other means. And this is where the big bills lurk.
The process is complicated and expensive. First, the panels must be removed carefully from the building without being bent, torn, cut or broken – any damage at this stage would release the harmful substances and they need to be delivered flat in order to go through the correct disposal process.
Next, somebody has to pay for their delivery transport to the fridge recycling plant, of which to date there are an extremely limited number in the UK so the distance involved may be long and the transport costs high. When delivered, the panels must be cut to a suitable size. Panels are usually several metres long but must be reduced to no more than 2.0 x 1.0 metres for the process, and of course the cutting must be done in an isolated room to capture the dangerous substances released. Only once cut can the panels be fed into the recycling process.
Based on this process, a conservative estimate for the clean-up cost would be £13 per square metre (although costs in excess of £30 have been mooted); and when multiplied by the quantities of foam that hides in the roofs and walls of buildings nationwide, it runs into the billions.
Between 1992 and 2004 (at which point the ODP substances were outlawed), the manufacturers’ own figures suggest that some 83.5 million square metres of this same product were specified in the UK alone. In fact, this material had also been in use since the early 80s so the total figure will be much higher. And specifiers must not think that ODP-free material made since 2004 is exempt: in 25 years or so, when an average industrial building reaches the end of its life, there will be no visible way of knowing whether or not the foam insulation is pre- or post- 2004. The 2005 Montreal Protocol, therefore, advised governments globally that it will have to be recycled in exactly the same way. To complicate things further, post-2004 panels are often blown with Pentane, which is potentially explosive and must therefore be processed in a specially isolated area with a nitrous oxide atmosphere.
The industry as a whole is now facing high environmental and financial costs associated with the disposability of these panels, at a much earlier than expected time. The implications of this are that correct disposal methods may be ignored, either due to a lack of knowledge and information, or in some cases in favour of cheaper but unlawful and potentially damaging solutions. These, of course, will simply create a much more serious, costly, damaging and dangerous problem.
I do not believe that the specifiers who chose these products, or the demolition contractors who were halted by SEPA, are to blame. Insufficient information has been provided to the market regarding the ecological legacy that these products were to leave behind, and it is the manufacturers who must do the decent thing and foot the bill.
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