It is in almost every home and building you live and work in and is on most of the walls around you now. It is one of the most widely used construction products with up to 1.3 million tonnes of waste produced every year. And it is a controlled waste that has to be segregated from other waste streams costing around £250 per tonne for disposal. It is plasterboard.
Plasterboard was developed early in the 20th century, but it didn’t really take off until World War II when quick, easy and inexpensive building materials were needed to offset labour shortage and war costs. By the time the war ended, plasterboard had earned its place as the dominant building material and the post-war boom saw houses built in a fraction of the time and cost of pre-war construction. There was a real explosion in use throughout the 60s and 70s and plasterboard was now the go-to solution for quick and efficient internal lining in the construction sector. Today, around 270 million m2 is produced annually in the UK alone.
Plasterboard is one of the great versatile materials in modern construction, but it does come with an environmental cost. The main environmental impacts associated with plasterboard result from the production process and disposal. Production and calcination of gypsum, the main feedstock of plasterboard and finishing plaster, are energy and heat intensive. In addition, the longevity of gypsum feedstocks is far from secure. Gypsum has 2 sources: from virgin deposits in the ground and secondly, from the ‘scrubbing’ from coal and lignite-fired power stations. Both sources have questions around their long-term security
Probably the main environmental cost associated with plasterboard is waste. Gypsum, though non-hazardous, requires segregated monocell landfill disposal due to it emitting a toxic gas, Hydrogen Sulphide, when in contact with water. There have been improvements by the industry to minimise the amount of material going to landfill by specifying the right size of sheet for the design to reduce off-cuts, reduce over-order to sites to reduce wastage of virgin material and manufacturer take-back schemes, but it is still only possible to include around 20% recycled material into new product.
The current waste disposal figures are staggering.
- Manufacturing waste is currently around 500 tonnes annually.
- New construction waste of virgin material is approximately 300,000 tonnes per year. This is due to over-ordering, incorrect specification, damaged plasterboard and off-cuts.
- Waste from demolition and refurbishments could be as much as 1 million tonnes.
Collectively, this is the weight of more than 100,000 London buses! Every Year!
There must be a better way. Our founder, Tom Robinson, took on this challenge around 4 years ago when studying for his MSc in Sustainable Architecture. His experience working on building sites and seeing first-hand the sheer volume of plasterboard waste generated daily and destined for landfill made him determined to design a mainstream alternative, an easy use ‘drop-in’ solution that would reduce the impact of waste, minimise energy used in production and ensure security of feedstocks for the future. This is how Breathaboard was conceived.
Breathaboard is a high performance biocomposite alternative to plasterboard that uses plant material for 60-70% of its volume. Its design makes it just as easy to handle and install as regular plasterboard and even gives it improved performance in-use, managing and regulating moisture in the atmosphere and improving indoor air quality. Therefore, the benefits of Breathaboard are not only in reducing hard to treat waste to landfill – it also has the ability to breathe with the people in the building, reducing problems with condensation and mould. You can read more about this on the Breathaboard section of our website by following this link.
Breathaboard is a fundamental shift in mainstream construction materials, it’s a move away from the linear model of take, make and waste to a circular model where materials are grown, products are manufactured using less energy and resources and they are then simply broken down and composted at end-of-life. Matching ease of use, high performance and low environmental impact in products is essential if we are to enable long-term, sustainable growth in the construction sector.
Tom believes now is a really interesting time for disruptive ideas in the construction sector and particularly ideas that reduce waste to landfill and that bring with them increases in productivity. “We are living in a period of increasing uncertainty and the future landscape is not clear. However, I believe that this provides massive opportunity for businesses and ideas to completely re-think the conventional way materials are made. We have to reduce the colossal amounts of waste going to landfill, reduce energy demand in production, add to productivity in the UK to create jobs and exportable products and we can additionally bring health benefits to consumers. This is all key to ensuring long-term sustainable growth. We need to do this at the same time as shifting to a circular economy with a lighter footprint on our fragile ecosystems. I believe it is now, more than ever, time for businesses to step up and find new ways of doing good, alongside doing well”.