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Tax demand

Concern over the lack of UK government funding into recycling of construction materials will be aired at a major conference on sustainabilty. David Hayward reports.

Grants to construct a children's playground, or repair a church roof, are far easier to obtain than aid for research into recycling waste construction materials. Yet the cash for both comes from the same pot - an environmental tax levied on the construction industry specifically to discourage materials' wastage and help improve sustainability methods.

This is the claim of leading civil and environmental engineers frustrated that, despite the increasing plethora of green buzzwords - sustainability, recycling, whole life costing - British research into the re-use or substitution of primary construction materials is cash starved, fragmented and lagging seriously behind mainland Europe.

Engineers maintain that UK achievements are likely to soon be shackled by European Union legislation encompassing more advanced techniques from Germany, France or Scandinavia.

The warning comes on the eve of this month's world conference on sustainabilty within construction, hosted for the first time by the UK. Held in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, the three day conference will offer a global shop window for dozens of state of the art recycling techniques.

Speakers from over 30 countries will reveal material substitution and re-use ideas ranging from cement substitution by crushed rice husks and steel cans used as concrete reinforcement to shredded car tyres replacing road asphalt.

'British engineers are furious as government money available for recycling research is clearly being mismanaged, ' claims conference committee chairman Dr.Guy Woolley.

Britain's construction industry currently uses over 250Mt of quarried aggregates every year.

At the other end of the cycle, over 70Mt of construction waste are thrown away annually, most to landfill.

This is four times the rate of household waste production and, within the housing sector alone, equates to the loss of damaged and offcut materials sufficient to build one house in every ten.

The environmental damage in quarrying and transporting finite supplies of natural aggregates, and then landfilling bulk or contaminated waste, is now undisputed leader of the industry's social conscience agenda.

Government has demanded that the industry reduce quarried aggregate products by at least 8% over the next five years. And the four year old landfill tax, which has risen over 40% in its first four years to nearly £10/t for active waste, is soon to be joined by an even more onerous penalty over aggregate extraction.

Announced in the March budget, a £1.60 levy will be imposed from 2002 on every tonne of extracted mineral. Construction leaders claim this will see little environmental benefit, and costs will simply be passed onto the client, raising the price of road or house building by £380M/y.

'Government has reneged totally on its promise of an accompanying carrot in the form of grants for recycling research, ' claims Peter Braithwaite, director with consultant Arup Environmental and the ICE's environmental representative on the Engineering Council. 'A proportion of the landfill tax was supposed to be channelled directly back into research grants, but little ever reaches the industry.'

In theory, 20% of the tax can be reclaimed by the landfill site owner to contribute towards local environmental projects.

The original aim was that such tax credits would help fund efforts to increase recycling.

But in practice the landfill operator can win more brownie points by supporting equally qualifiable environmental schemes to repair local ancient monuments, build school playing fields or provide swings for the village playground.

'Organisations seeking this grant cannot directly be profit making companies, and traditional ex-government - but now privatised - research bodies, are no longer keen to take on projects not immediately seen as generating an income, ' claims Braithwaite, keynote speaker at this month's conference.

The result, he argues, is British construction seriously lagging behind its more government-supported mainland European counterparts. Equally backward UK legislation and codes of practice, Braithwaithe claims, have difficulty accepting the concept of materials re-use, and do little to encourage recycling.

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