A hospital team sends out test results by transcribing the name and address details from the medical records print-out onto an envelope. It is time-consuming and prone to mistakes. A new nurse joining the team takes a look at the situation and suggests: “Why don’t we use window envelopes and have the records’ print-out set so that the name and address locations match the window on the envelope?” The result is savings in time and costs, improved accuracy and enhanced patient service.
That is what reducing waste is about – doing something simple, or small, but which adds up to a large number. By reducing costs, cheering up the team and cutting down resource use, reducing waste is also promoting sustainability. And it is no different in construction.
Waste is anything we do that doesn’t add value to our customer or ourselves. Time, money, effort, materials all spring to mind immediately, but waste also includes ideas for improvement that are not actioned or picked up. In a report published by London 2012, our NoWaste project (to eliminate waste on the Athletes’ Village working with Lend Lease) is recorded as saving £94,000 over six months. This was the cost of the skip hire, but we worked out unofficially the total cost of waste was 16 times that, or £1.5m including materials and management time spent dealing with waste. Generally, there are eight types of waste: rushing; not working according to plan; excessive transport; excessive changes; errors and mistakes; lost talent and ideas; over stocking. You probably spot one or two every week. The problem with these wastes is that they are so common we no longer notice them.
Spotting and solving waste problems is about dealing with these problems on a daily basis: at a recent project in south-east England, a company decided to reduce timber waste in form work. They placed a large skip by where they make up the forms and ask the teams to put the used timber into the skip for reuse. This has the simplicity of everyone on the team knowing what they need to do (in other words, change behaviour) but that it is easy to do and everyone can feel good.
Clearly if you can design out waste that can save money. This does not always need to be technical or specialised, it just needs some encouragement and a willingness to ask: “does this work well?” and “can we do better than this?”
For example, a team at London 2012 construction was struggling with laying gas pipes in winter: the pipe came in coils and trying to twist a coiled pipe into a precisely dug channel in more or less frozen ground was not a lot of fun. An engineer who attended our NoWaste programme decided to think out of the box (which we advocated) and suggested buying pipes in straight lengths instead of coils. Since the people doing the design did not actually lay the pipes, the practical issues about flexing the pipes did not occur to them but the solution certainly had appeal to the teams doing the job. They adopted the proposal by ordering pipes in straight lengths and productivity improved thereafter, as did morale.
We will always need to carry out cost-centre activities such as reuse, recycle and disposal. The costs come from managing and handling the materials for reuse and with whatever the waste industry and HM Revenue and Customs want to charge us for the recycle/disposal. Reuse gets a lot of press about materials swaps and so on. This is inevitable if you cannot find any way of using the materials yourself — you will have to fork out money for this service. But on site, reuse is about planning and organisation: finding suitable space to store the materials and making sure that everyone knows about that.
Some of the teams we worked with on the London 2012 construction programmes told us that they were facing clear-up notices prior to visits by the big chiefs and “lots of materials” got thrown away because there wasn’t the time or suitable places to store them. Our suggestion was a piece of printed cardboard (FSC cardboard, mind). By placing a notice by the materials destined for reuse, suddenly what was a mess becomes good sustainability practice. This brings us again to something simple, effective, low cost and morale boosting.
At the heart of success in reducing waste are behavioural changes. These changes can work if people are engaged in the right way, within the right context and with the right messages. The important thing to remember is that nobody comes to work on a construction site to create waste – we’re too busy for that. Therefore anything we can do to help our colleagues, whether managers, specialists, supervisor or operatives to get their job done easier will be welcome. If you ask them how they will tackle the problems themselves and help facilitate the solutions, it will be even more welcomed.
I started with an example from the NHS and I am finishing with another. At a major NHS Trust, a matron redesigned a patient transport information form and engaged the porters, who do the transporting, to become part of the team. They sign the form before departing with the patient (and form) and again sign it when delivering the patient (and form). The form itself was simplified from a complex seven page affair to two pages.
The simple solution motivated the porters who now feel they are part of the team, and the nurses who did not have to fill out unnecessary information. Morale improved, patient service improved and the hospital’s insurance premium dropped as the process is deemed to reduce risks. If the NHS can do it, so can construction.
Uly Ma is a founding principal at Greenfile Development. Greenfile’s NoWaste project at London 2012 was supported by CITB-ConstructionSkills’ Growth Fund. Uly Ma is the author of No Waste — Sustainability in Construction published by Gower. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Ideally we’d design out waste, but recycling is a reality and we need to do it as efficiently as possible. The practical details about recycling seem simple: segregate the wastes and make sure there is no cross contamination. So how can we make it more effective and efficient?
Probably the best people to ask are the ones filling the skips, and not necessarily managers and specialists in offices thinking about problem and then coming up with solutions: such as not using non-standard skip labels just because there are some old ones lying around the site office. There are very good reasons for the standard colours used on skip labels — with our multi-national workforce, easily remembered colour coding just makes it easier for everyone to remember which bins are for wood and which are for metals.
I recall an incident at a very large construction project where a subcontractor used its own colour scheme for bins – orange yellow for plaster products. Oops! After hectoring the main contractor about this, I then found that the subcontractor “resolved” this by using a marker pen to scribble a cross on the orange-yellow label and remained using it for plaster products. Since the standard labels can be downloaded and printed easily, there is no reason for this lackadaisical approach.
Many of the problems encountered in recycling often come down to a few people paying lip service to their responsibilities. How do you persuade people they should change behaviour when their own managers and leaders are showing contempt? The cynics will say use cash incentives but that is not only a short-term solution, but also a cost.
My suggestion is to design out reasons why contaminated bins occur: not enough bins; wrong materials ending up in the bins; empty drinks cans ending up in a wood skip and so on. By analysing the causes of these problems with people working at the site, it is not difficult to come up with practical solutions that make life easier for everyone on site to not raise the costs of recycling.