Thoughts on a flat-packed wardrobe …

Just before Christmas, I assembled a flat pack wardrobe for my daughter, and it got me thinking about waste, or rather non-waste.

I was impressed. We ordered it over the internet, picked our day and a four hour delivery slot (10-2). The day before, the courier reduced this to a two hour slot (10-12), and on the day a text informed us that delivery would be within the hour, which it was. And at 11.30am, two packages totalling 88kg (big wardrobe with drawers …) were sitting on the floor ready for assembly. Unpacking took a while, with a small mountain of cardboard wrapping & polystyrene spacers set to one side. Not one scratch, ding, chip, mark … at all. Four poly bags of fittings, 319 items in total. By 5.30pm, it was fully assembled, in position, doors aligned, and safety-fixed back to the wall. And all that was left over was four poly bags. The fittings were exact. None missing, none left over. Spot on. Exactly what I needed, no more, no less.

(One beef, oh flat-pack-furniture industry … why polystyrene? Why not blocks of corrugated cardboard that can go into the recycling bin instead of the landfill bin? Just a thought … )

So, what impressed me? Well, firstly; I got what I wanted, when I wanted it. With excellent communications so that I could be at my daughters at the right time, and not waste any of my day sitting twiddling my thumbs wondering where it was, when it would arrive, or whether it would even arrive that day at all. Secondly, it arrived in good condition, carefully handled, with the right amount of packaging to ensure nothing was damaged or missing. No having to argue about delivery damage, or getting replacements. And thirdly, all 319 parts that were delivered fitted somewhere. They all went in … I had nothing whatsoever left over. They had confidence in their take-off & packing systems: nothing extra delivered “just in case”.

And in the New Year, I’ll be back on construction sites again, looking at all the surplus materials delivered “just in case”, lying forlornly in the rain and snow, and destined for the skips at the end of the job because they’re too heavy/awkward/tatty to take to use somewhere else. And I’ll be walking around picking up (as you do) all the screws/bolts/widgets strewn around the floor and putting them back into their nearby boxes. And thinking about my wardrobe experience. And the 120 million tonnes of waste that the UK construction industry generates every year.

The waste that costs an average project about 0.5% of the project value to dispose of. The waste that if you look at it properly and think of it’s true worth, really costs a project 10x-20x it’s disposal cost. (How much did you pay for the things you’re throwing away, their delivery, storage & handling on site, and eventual movement to the skip?) In other words, the waste in your skips, rather than being a minor consideration, represents 5-10% of extra profit, or improved competitiveness. And I know many Commercial Managers in the industry who would sell their grandmothers for a tiny slice of that. (Bet you smiled … because you know it’s true.)

A thought: The construction industry contributes about £100 billion a year to the UK’s GDP. What’s 5-10% of that?

Back to the wardrobe & the things I learned. It is possible to have just what you want, delivered just when you want it, adequately packaged and in good condition. We know that consolidation centres and just-in-time deliveries work for construction projects, but these are the exception rather than the rule as soon as you move away from congested city centres, but why? Isn’t it time to spend some of the £5b – £10b we waste every year embedding this approach into the industry so it becomes the norm everywhere rather than the exception? I have no doubt it would pay dividends immediately if properly done. And stop a lot of waste.

It’s time to stop talking about “recycling”, and “zero waste to landfill” as aspirational targets – these should now be the norm. It’s now time to start talking about completely removing waste from the construction process – just “Zero Waste”.

Baling waste – Ceco MiniPak

Ceco MinPakA couple of years ago, I decided to find a practical waste baler to use on construction sites as invariably the first thing that comes up with standard “mains” balers is “We don’t use 240v on site”. And yes, you can get 110/120v versions of most of these as well for use in other countries, but rarely are they designed for outdoor use anyway.

In my search I came across the Ceco MiniPak baler – a small, portable, lightweight (48kgs), weatherproof hand baler that can produce decently-compacted small bales without needing a power supply, or any special training. Although the manufacturers claim bales up to 35kg can be achieved with light plastic film, I tend to think in terms of limiting bales to 20kg to avoid manual handling issues. With a finished size of  440mm x 360mm x 650mm, bales have a volume of fractionally over 1/10th of a cubic metre, giving a density of around 200kg/m3, ie 8-10 times that of loose plastic film.

At this density, an 8 yard (6 cubic metre) skip will hold probably 1 tonne or more of cardboard & plastic, the asset values of which should at least offset any skip costs giving you a free skip, and if the material being baled is clean and good quality, could result in a credit in the same way metal skips do. Note that as the bales are NOT “mill standard” you won’t get the credit value of the materials you may find quoted on the open market, but you ought to be expecting to be getting about 50% or more of “mill” – which for clean “natural” plastic film can be as high as £300 – £400 per tonne. (There’s also no reason why you shouldn’t mix cardboard & plastic bales in a single skip for transport purposes as long as each bale only contains one material – it’s easy to separate at the other end.)

As the baler is on wheels and easily transportable, it’s practical to use it wherever the plastic or cardboard waste is being generated, turning packaging directly into bales wherever fittings are being unpackaged, and keeping the packaging as clean as possible to maximise its asset value to a recycler. Once baled it is also easier to move around the site without causing litter, and minimising litter risk from the skips themselves.

(To visit the Ceco website, just click on the image)

Note: Ceco are based in Ireland, and are currently looking for distributors and stockists for this product in the UK.