Steel, Sustainability and the Circular Economy

Steel is one the world's most recycled products with research showing that 99% of structural steelwork is reused or recycled. The Light Steel Frame Association (LSFA) is on a mission to explain steel's sustainability benefits and its role in the circular economy.

A sustainable circular economy is one which reduces the burden on nature by ensuring resources remain in use as long as possible. Steel is fundamental in achieving a circular economy - components can be remanufactured, reused or recycled. With a long service life, we may have to wait a hundred years or more for steel that is in use today to be recycled or reused. Steel is a vital material in the history of construction and although it may not be in our lifetime, every single element can be repurposed.

Design for Reuse

It is estimated that the UK construction industry consumes some 420 metric tons of materials annually and generates some 90 metric tons of waste of which 25 metric tons ends up in landfill. So, there is significant scope for improving resource efficiency within the industry. Recycling is one the key mantras of the 21st century, but reuse for its original or similar purpose without vastly altering the physical form, is not top of the construction sustainability agenda. As distinct from recycling, reuse of construction products involves their repurposing with little or no reprocessing. Reuse offers even greater environmental advantages than recycling since there is no, or few environmental impacts associated in reprocessing.

As with recycling, some construction products and systems are more adaptable to reuse than others and therefore designers should be encouraged to think not only about how their buildings can be easily and effectively constructed, but also how they can be efficiently deconstructed in the long-term. This is a new discipline for most designers. The process is straightforward. For example, deconstructed sections are inspected and tested to verify their dimensional and strength properties. The section is then shot or sandblasted to remove any coatings, refabricated and primed to the requirements of the new project.

There is, however, significant scope for increasing reuse of steel construction products and work is underway within the sector to promote and facilitate this. The proportion of recovered products that are reused will increase as design for deconstruction is better understood and a stronger market for reusable steel construction products is stimulated. The ability of the steel construction sector to facilitate these advantageous processes has been enhanced by the standardisation of components and connections.

Research carried out by the LSFA's technical partner, the Steel Construction Institute (SCI) has estimated that there are around 100 million tonnes of steel in buildings and infrastructure in the UK. This 'stock' of steel is an important and valuable material asset that will be reclaimed and either reused or recycled in the future.

The LSFA fully supports the 'Protocol for Reusing Structural Steel' produced by the SCI. This valuable research concludes that the environmental advantages of reusing reclaimed structural steel are considerable. There are also potential cost savings. This protocol recommends data collection, inspection and testing to ensure that reclaimed structural steelwork can be used with confidence in a new context.

There is growing pressure on the construction industry to be more resource efficient, reduce waste and to lower embodied carbon impacts. More recently, circular economy concepts are being promoted, with a roadmap developed to support a shift towards a resource efficient, low carbon economy. Increased structural steel reuse will support these aims and stimulate new business opportunities in the UK.

The LSFA has been established to influence legislation, regulation and to support the overall objectives and growth of the steel frame sector. The Association works with members to raise awareness of the performance, productivity and sustainability benefits of steel.


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