COP26 is finally upon us. The most important UN Climate Conference and the moment we are told that we are out of time.

I watched the powerful opening ceremony, with speeches from the UK Prime Minister, poets, Sir David Attenborough, leaders of island nations and more. If you did too, then you’ll now have a flavour as to the immediacy of the crisis at hand.

We cannot procrastinate any longer. Real actions, not words are the order of the day. And UK fenestration, as with every other area of the economy and society has its own part to play.

COP26 is the perfect time for our industry to debate within itself what more it can do to reduce its impact on the climate.

I have considered three pledges our industry could make.

1. Commit to reuse all post-consumer waste

One of the most obvious pledges during COP26 our industry could make which would have a significant impact would be to commit to ensuring that all post-consumer waste is put back into the circular economy.

Most know this as closed-loop manufacturing. It is the process of post-consumer materials being recycled and reused and put back into the manufacturing process.

There are parts of fenestration that have closed-loop recycling and manufacturing already. I visited Deceuninck’s site in Belgium, pre-pandemic, and was shown their facility which takes post-consumer PVCu frames and turns them into new material to then make fresh profile. At the time of my visit, in 2019, they were in the process of increasing the capacity of the site in Diksmuide. The site in Belgium can process 20,000 tons of post-consumer waste.

PVCu systems companies have invested heavily in recycling facilities in recent years. Every major company has at least one site, some have more. As a result, hundreds of thousands of frames are kept from being put in the ground. But not every single frame is salvaged, and some frames do find their way into the ground, contaminating the environment, taking thousands of years to decompose.

More needs to be done to ensure that all post-consumer frames, whether it is PVCu, aluminium, timber or steel, all go back into the manufacturing loop. Not a single old frame should be discarded to never be used again. We have the facilities to be able to process them, with new ones being built and capacity and existing ones being raised.

The benefits are obvious. No frames wasted means no frames in the ground. A clear win for the environment. But there is also a clear win for us. We have suffered for the last 18 months with a severe crunch on the supply of materials. Had we invested better in a recycling network that could take most post-consumer frames, perhaps we would have had a more reliable supply of materials to source from.

All parts of fenestration can pledge to this. Systems companies, fabricators, installers, IGU, hardware, spacer bar suppliers and everyone else in between.

2. Each major IGU company to invest in glass crushers

To encourage more of us to reuse our post-consumer waste, we need the infrastructure and services to be able to facilitate it. Whilst PVCu systems companies have been building their recycling plants, nowhere near enough of the sector has been investing in the recycling of glass for the direst purpose of being reused in the sector.

The most obvious and successful example of this is the glass crusher that Morley Glass have on-site at their hub in Leeds. They have had their crusher for three years, collecting post-consumer glass from their customers and putting it to good use.

From those three years, the benefits are clear. I wrote a post a few weeks ago about the data they had collected and had verified which proves beyond doubt the benefits of recycling glass. You can read about that here. The data collected is powerful proof that the recycling and reusing of glass have immense benefits.

During COP26, it would be a significant statement of intent if other major IGU companies were to announce that they too would be investing in glass crushers on their premises.

In the case of Morley Glass, they are using the money they raise from selling back the cullet to their own suppliers to build what is called their Green Vision Fund. A growing pot of money that used to invest in local and sustainable projects. It’s a fantastic initiative that benefits the community. What glass companies choose to do with the proceeds from their own glass crushers is up to them, but the key point here is keeping glass in the manufacturing loop and away from causing harm to the environment.

3. All PVCu systems to be made from 100% recycled content

This one is a bold one, but one that can be achieved if we can also agree to ramp up our ability to recycle more.

In theory, all the PVCu used for windows that are currently fitted in people’s homes can be recycled and reused again and again for around 10 cycles, giving the material roughly a 300-year lifespan. If we can build the infrastructure required to harvest all post-consumer PVCu frames, then it could be possible for all PVCu systems to be made from 100% recycled content.

Now, this is going to require a few things. First, investment at all levels of the supply chain to make sure old frames manage to make their way into the closed-loop system. That means more recycling centres, more ways to deliver and pick up post-consumer frames and job creation.

Second, we have to move away from this ridiculous notion that recycled content is somehow a poor alternative to virgin material. It’s not, and the fact of the matter is that we have no time left to debate the issue. We have to start reducing our usage of virgin PVCu, which starts its life off as oil, a fossil fuel, and open our minds to the reality at hand.

Third, there is going to need some legislative changes. Currently, BS12608 states that all visible faces of PVC need to be virgin materials. We would need Government to look at this and make the necessary changes to allow systems companies to move a big step forwards.

This will also require systems companies to make some big commitments towards this goal. I suspect after the soaring cost of new polymer materials this year many are already looking at ways to use more recycled content to try to stave off rocketing costs. But they, as we all do, have a pressing and immediate responsibility to ensure that their business creates as little impact on the environment as possible. Ending the use of virgin PVCu would be a fantastic starting point.

COP26 is going to show us that only the boldest actions will suffice in the battle against climate change. No more words, only changes that will actually make a difference. Whether we like it or not, these actions may mean permanent changes to living our life. Our industry has a role to play in this battle and I hope that COP26 injects some pace and new actions by our sector to do a lot more and quickly.

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