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Building the foundations of sustainability

Sydney’s Better Buildings Partnership has helped significantly reduce waste in the building and construction sector, but just how problematic is waste in the sector as a whole?

In 2011, some of Sydney’s leading property owners and managers, investment firms, peak bodies and waste industry influencers formed a partnership to reduce their waste.

Known as the Better Buildings Partnership (BBP), the efforts aimed to improve the performance and sustainability of commercial buildings in the City of Sydney and across Australia.

According to the organisation’s most recent annual report, the partnership represents more than half of Sydney’s commercial floor space in the city centre. It’s worked with industry professionals to create and embed best practice standards in key areas, including leasing, operational waste, refurbishment waste, solar installations and optimising water use. The end result has led to the creation of new waste management guidelines for contracting and reporting and 60 per cent resource recovery targets for creating stripout waste. BBP estimates that 80 per cent of stripout waste goes to landfill due to contractual red tape. Stripout waste refers to removing all or part of a building’s internal wall, flooring, ceiling and furnishing components when a tenant vacates a space.

The initiative forms part of Sustainable Sydney 2030, which lays out a vision for a green, global and connected city.

The BBP works by engaging the building industry and government on key environmental policy and regulatory issues to enable markets, scale up sustainability and benchmark its progress. The leadership panel comprises senior representatives from its member organisations, including University of Technology Sydney, AMP Capital, Lendlease, Mirvac Group, Investa Property Group, Dexus, Brookfield, Stockland, ISPT, Frasers, University of Sydney and the City of Sydney. Its 2017-18 annual report indicates that during the financial year, BBP projects covered 54 per cent of commercial office space in the Sydney Commercial Business District, which includes 100 commercial buildings in that financial year.

Paul Wall, Head of Group Sustainability and Energy at Dexus and BBP Chair, says the BBP is a unique initiative.

“Once you start understanding waste streams and documenting the process you can create more markets for recycling,” Paul says.

Paul says the BBP has provided more certainty to business by opening up these markets, which will allow the cost of recycling to reduce over time, adding that it remains commercially viable due to a higher landfill levy in Sydney.

The BBP has focused on a range of sustainability projects, from green leasing, to operational waste, refurbishment waste and energy and water efficiency. Most relevant to the waste industry are its operational and refurbishment waste projects. Operational waste focuses on raising the bar on procurement and management of waste contractors and services, which helps to contribute to the NSW Government’s target to increase commercial recycling from its current rate of 51 per cent to 70 per cent by 2021-22.

BBP’s aim is to improve the quality and flow of information through set guidelines for the procurement of waste management services, effective waste diversion and reporting. BBP’s operational waste guidelines range from tips on the billing of waste management services, to more accurate waste data, and established roles and responsibilities for cleaners and contractors in waste disposal.

Paul says it complements a new certification introduced for waste contractors by GECA (Good Environmental Choice Australia) which BBP has recently worked collaboratively on. The new certification will be launched for use by contractors in early 2018.

“GECA has now developed a certification process so that when building site managers go to tender for various works, they can select the GECA certified waste contractors – this improves supply chain governance,” he says.


The BBP’s recovery of waste project focuses on maximising diversion from landfill from office tenancy stripout.

According to the BBP website, Sydney’s office tenancies are on average renewed every seven to 10 years, with an estimated 25,000 tonnes of waste ending up in landfill each year. By improving its processes, it’s estimated the City of Sydney could divert 55,000 tonnes of strip out waste from landfill each year from the commercial office, accommodation, entertainment and retail sectors.

Several research projects in this space have been conducted with partners such as the University of Technology Sydney, GPT and Dexus.

One of the many case studies from the BBP included Sydney’s Governor Macquarie Tower, a substantial refurbishment project in Sydney’s Central Business District.

In 2015, Edge Environment was commissioned to investigate resource recovery across several floors. Using inputs from BBP members, it was estimated that without careful planning, recycling rates in office strips can be as low as 20 per cent, and that every 1000 square metres of office space generates around 63 tonnes of waste during a stripout. It found that high diversion rates could be achieved at no extra cost. The trial helped inspire the Stripout Waste Guidelines, released in mid-2016. The guidelines are a practical tool to help tenants, building owners and contractors reduce waste and improve resource recovery through improved stripout processes.

A framework from learnings was outlined for Governor Macquarie Tower, which is jointly owned by Dexus, GPT Group and Lendlease, to move the industry in the long term towards 80 per cent resource recovery in an office stripout and refurbishment. Under the trial, an overall resource recovery rate of 61 per cent was achieved, with progress tracked through receipts. Recycling alternatives were also found to offer a lower gate fee than landfill as they could monetise on recycled product.

Tom Davies, Director of Edge Environment, the diversion manager throughout the process, says the firm worked across the BBP with numerous commercial builders to help them find ways to reduce their waste, including GPT Group, one of Australia’s largest diversified property groups. The company received a grant under the NSW Government’s Waste Less, Recycle More initiative to recover in excess of 10,000 tonnes of material as part of the BBP project.

Tom says that the Governor Macquarie Tower trial looked at 1000 square metres of net lettable area on five floors – a measurement of the total occupiable floor space and land area of a property, which assists in rental calculations and property market assessments.

“It is really a demonstration that if you plan well you can find an end market for 80 per cent of your materials,” he says.

“With materials such as plasterboard, we found that instead of ripping it off the wall and putting it into a skip, you can place it on a pallet and send it off for re-processing.”

He says companies such as Regyp were able to re-process the plasterboard into a soil amendment. They can also send it back to the manufacturer in a circular-economy approach.


Numerous lessons were learnt from the trial, including that glass, plasterboard, hard fill and metals were 100 per cent recyclable. It also noted take-back schemes exist for some materials, as some suppliers offer closed loop solutions. Onsite separation and removal was also identified as a key factor in ensuring clean material streams and an organised approach to material recovery. Tom says one of the most challenging waste streams was glass, which could be made into insulated glass, but was often at risk of contamination.

“A high proportion of waste transported included glass and the tolerance for contamination is extremely low, so we had a couple of loads rejected. The waste industry just needs to learn how to manage this accordingly,” he says.

A large proportion of office furniture was also sent to charities to help find it a second home. He says office furniture is another challenging stream, and Edge Environment is now working with the City of Sydney to help find new markets for items such as laminated desktop chipboard and plastic.

An issue, he says, is contractors and demolishers not having the time and contractual incentive to take responsibility for waste reduction and to better understand their roles. Tom says the BBP is now looking at a second round of funding to further develop the resource recovery industry for the building sector.

The BBP is working with its members to develop a register of upcoming stripout projects, ensuring more lead time is given before contractors move on site. It is also looking at take-back product stewardship schemes, in addition to new markets for re-processing and keeping a record of price fluctuations.

Paul says once the 80 per cent diversion of fitout waste target is achieved, the next step will be to get contractors to adopt a “business as usual approach”, negating the need for external managers.

“With Stripout Guidelines in place, we think contractors will be able to drive progress within this framework. However, we will always support the head contractor to educate the supply chain and ensure it is aligned,” Paul says.

“We’re finding there’s a lot of awareness and intent, but we still have a way to go with educating contractors across Sydney and the broader recycling market.”

Paul says BBP members are now using the Stripout Waste Guidelines in most stripout projects.

Other areas of improvement being looked at by the BBP include an online marketplace and equipment inventory to help find a new home for used office furniture for other commercial enterprises. Once launched, customers and tenants will be able to purchase the products.

The success of the project has led Paul to believe that the building industry can take the lead in reducing its waste, and in time, reduce the need for government-led product stewardship schemes.

“I think the market will get there as a lot of our research has proven that coordination is the key to securing higher diversion rates,” he says.


Paul hopes the BPP model can be rolled out nationwide. Talks are underway with statutory authority Sustainability Victoria to develop a similar program in Victoria and a forum was held earlier this year in Melbourne to discuss the success of the BBP model.

It will build on past work to improve the NABERS waste rating tool and more recent work looking at waste separation in commercial buildings and shopping centres.    

Stan Krpan, Sustainability Victoria’s Chief Executive, says the building and construction industry is leading the way in the area of using recycled parts in building projects.

“After research investment from Sustainability Victoria we’re seeing a lot of interest in low-carbon concrete, containing recycled glass for instance. Hazardous waste, including fly ash is also being used in concrete now, so I think the industry has been quite innovative,” Stan says.

The Australian National Waste Report 2016 shows 76 per cent of construction and demolition waste (C&D) in Victoria was recovered.

In Australia, the same report shows 64 per cent of C&D waste was recovered nationally, a figure which has fluctuated since 2006-07.

“We’re seeing new growth in particular in infrastructure. We work closely with the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA) and have a strong relationship with them. Most large government infrastructure projects in Victoria are now being rated with the ISCA tool.”

He says Sustainability Victoria is partnering with ISCA to encourage the use of recycled glass, plastic, tyres and a number of problem waste streams and looking at their end destinations.

“One of the exciting developments for me is around procurement. There’s a new international standard around sustainable procurement – ISO 20400. What we’re also seeing in the market is people questioning how they can use finance to drive innovation and reduce the environmental footprint of what they’re buying.”


Stan says a growing interest in building sustainability is the concept of lean manufacturing and pre-fabrication – the practice of making components offsite and then incorporating them into residential or commercial construction. This reduces the amount of waste on site and improves productivity by reducing time that materials spend on site. Another technique is pre-cutting individual housing components including plaster, roofs and timber offsite and then fitting them as the structure progresses. These practices were used by companies such as Burbank in pilot programs funded by Sustainability Victoria.

In Victoria, home builders Burbank partnered with the Housing Industry Association, RMIT University and Sustainability Victoria in 2013 to develop a Zero Waste Home, achieving a 99 per cent reduction in waste going to landfill.

An investigation by RMIT University, which audited and reviewed processes and the materials used, waste avoidance and working with suppliers, found waste at the site was largely due to oversupplies of materials and material offcuts.


According to Stan, state and local government procurement is the next area which Sustainability Victoria wants to target, due to the size of their spends and ability to stimulate markets and innovation. Volume homes are another priority area with room for improvement, he adds.

“Tens of thousands of new homes are being built every year on the outskirts of cities like Melbourne and Sydney and a few tonnes for every home created is costing the builder money, which is then passed on to the purchaser. One of the reasons why it’s difficult to recycle is that waste is mostly just dumped on site in a cage or skip and it’s mixed, which imposes additional costs if it is to be recycled,” Stan explains.

Working with sub-contractors to reduce waste is another area for improvement, Stan says, as all stakeholders have a role to play.

“It’s an issue we all have to work on in coming years. How are we training and educating tradespeople such as electricians, carpenters, plasterers and sub-contractors more broadly?

“I think there are good business opportunities in this space and we’ve partnered with the Australian Supply Chain Sustainability School to promote their educational resources and materials which include tips on waste reduction and recycling.”

The costly problem of mixed loads is one that needs to be reconsidered, he says, with additional work required.

“Victoria already has a mature recycling sector for household, commercial, industrial and construction materials, but across the board there are many opportunities to expand this sector into new areas and capture more of what now goes to landfill.”

Antony Sprigg, Chief Executive Officer of ISCA, says the challenges in Victoria include a lack of recycling targets in the state to send the right market signal to industry.

ISCA is working closely with Sustainability Victoria to encourage the deployment of its IS v.2.0 rating scheme, which evaluates sustainability across the design, construction and operation of infrastructure.

Its latest rating scheme, which includes a circular economy credit within the resources category, has been reviewed and is expected to launch in June of this year.

Overall in Australia, Antony says waste minimisation needs to be prioritised prior to procurement, as the sector often doesn’t have the contractual flexibility to help process unrecyclable material due to regulatory and other constraints. He says government entities in particular should make sustainability a focus in their procurement strategy.

“It all comes back to planning. One of the things we advocate with government procurers is how they can better work among themselves to reduce and work out what they can share among them, particularly when it comes to spoil on infrastructure projects,” he says.

“I’m confident that the private sector is innovative to deliver, they just need the right market signals.”

Michael Roberts, Executive Director Planning & Development at Housing Industry Association (HIA), puts the challenge of waste management in building down to three issues: economies of scale for the quantity of materials for smaller projects, site size and the practical challenges of sorting materials, and recycling options within proximity to where construction is occurring.

“Waste management is a complex issue for the housing industry as no single waste management approach guarantees significant waste reduction. Part of the challenge is in the fact that quite different responses are required to address the issues faced by the new home building sector as opposed to the renovation sector,” Michael says.

“Even within the new building sector, the challenges and options available vary significantly between for example the construction of a high-rise unit project and the construction of a one off designed house.”

He says the residential construction sector is predominately dominated by small business, and reliant on subcontractors as a result.

“On a single house site as many as 50 contractors can be involved in the construction of the home. Getting buy in from all contractors on any issue is a challenge.”

The larger the project, and larger the site size, the more opportunities there are for a waste minimisation strategy, he notes.

“The challenge for house builders is that while they do generate waste the amounts of individual products (plaster board, timber, masonry products) generated on a single site is relatively small.”

Michael says the frustration then is that even if the material is able to be sorted onsite, which due to rapidly shrinking allotment sizes and local government site management requirements is a challenge in itself, who will be interested in the relatively small quantities of each material? What collection facilities are available and what are the transport costs?

Michael says the biggest savings are delivered where a business is able to develop a suite of designs that they build on a repeat basis. Improvements in software estimating packages helps volume builders know within a couple of shovels of concrete how much of these materials go into a standard design, he adds.

Equally, the improvements in factory truss manufacturing has also significantly reduced timber wastage, he says.

“Modular construction, particularly in relation to walling systems, is also emerging as a legitimate option that provides a range of potential benefits, including waste minimisation.

“Improvements in the quality of modular construction is also providing options in the construction of high-rise apartments. HIA is seeing the installation of elements such as bathroom pods steadily growing in popularity.”

Michael says the construction associated with boutique designs or renovations creates a range of additional challenges. He says this can be exacerbated when you have local government planning provisions or developer covenants that require boutique designs or the use of particular materials.

Despite these challenges, Paul remains optimistic about a waste free future.

“The better we are able to measure and manage our resources upstream, the more people can extract value from them later. Its a win-win scenario, and we’re pleased to be leading the way.”

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