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How to reduce the environmental impact of construction waste, water and noise

A quick guide to understanding your responsibilities and managing the environmental impact of your project


With continued emphasis on carbon reduction, most Australian construction businesses understand the importance of finding ways to work smarter and more sustainably. It’s also essential that contractors and subcontractors understand their legal obligations and ensure robust controls are in place to protect the environment and avoid potential regulatory action.

Here we explore the impact that construction waste, water and noise pollution can have on the environment; how to comply with relevant environmental regulations; and tips to reduce your construction project’s environmental impact.

Managing construction waste

Materials used in construction account for almost half of all materials extracted globally1, so it is critical that the construction process, including design, construction and demolition, aligns to a circular economy through the supply chain.

During 2021-22, the construction and demolition sector produced approximately one-third of Australia’s total waste2, while spending on waste services has increased by 35% over the last five years2.

There’s a clear need to reduce waste, but the volume and complexity of construction and demolition projects means there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, waste management and reduction strategies should focus on circular principles including:

  • Designing out waste – rethinking construction methods and materials
  • Reducing the consumption of new materials
  • Re-using existing building materials and including recycled content in supply
  • Recycling what can’t be used again
  • Safely and sustainably managing remaining construction waste.

Managing stormwater and wastewater in construction

Water supports many different construction processes, from mixing concrete to dust suppression, and can also be generated on sites following rainfall and during dewatering for deep excavations. And wherever there is water, contamination can occur.

Contamination can affect the quality and biodiversity of local waterways, and seep into nearby soils and ecosystems. Even trace elements of some contaminants can be harmful, so great care should be taken to prevent water from coming into contact with these and other hazardous substances on site, such as sediment, paint, heavy metals and hydrocarbons. ‘Only rain goes in the drain’ is a simplified way to consider the site’s impact on downstream environmental health.

Water removed during excavation should also be tested, and if necessary treated, before being returned to site or local waterways or to disposal, only in accordance with legal and project requirements

Reducing noise pollution in construction

Noise pollution can’t be seen, but the impact of prolonged exposure can result in hearing issues in employees, and affect the health and wellbeing of surrounding communities. Construction vibrations can also cause structural damage to nearby properties.

To reduce noise pollution on your next project, consider these questions:

  • What are the project and legal requirements for management of noise impacts?
  • Have mitigations such as sound absorbing materials or structures been incorporated into the design?
  • Can noise be reduced at the source with quieter, more efficient and better maintained equipment, modified alarms or shielding?
  • Has adequate PPE been supplied to workers (think noise cancelling earmuffs and ear plugs)?
  • How will the site provide information to the community and manage feedback?
  • Can construction schedules minimise people’s exposure to noise impacts?
  • Can people be removed from the vicinity of prolonged or high decibel noise?

Know your responsibilities

Commonwealth

The National Environment Protection Council (NEPC) is responsible for delivering on Australia’s obligations under international environmental protection agreements. It achieves this via National Environment Protection Measures3 (NEPMs), designed to assist in protecting and managing particular aspects of the environment, like air and water quality, noise standards, hazardous waste, materials re-use and recycling, and site contamination.

States and territories

In each state and territory, an independent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) serves a jurisdictional role in implementing the NEPMs. Each EPA also has legislative powers to minimise the risk of pollution and waste by investigating possible breaches, and preparing guidelines to help businesses manage their environmental impact. They all differ in approach, so it’s your duty to understand and adhere to the regulations and guidelines issued by your local EPA. Other regulations, including planning, waste management and water management, often include other regulatory authorities which may include local water authorities or designated planning authorities.

Local government

Under the relevant state or territory Environmental Protection Act, decision-making powers are often delegated to local government in areas like planning, water management, vegetation and weed control, waste management, plus air and noise quality. To understand and adhere to your local government responsibilities, refer to your local council website.

Top tips for reducing environmental pollution

Follow this practical advice to lessen your environmental impact and ensure your project is compliant:

  • Refer to your project requirements, local EPA and local council to understand the regulations that apply to your project.
  • Regularly perform risk assessments in key areas (like noise, water and waste management) and design work practices to reduce these risks.
  • Prepare and implement a water management plan for water on or below your site, and engage a specialist like Coates to manage and treat contaminated water according to your specific project requirements
  • Prepare and implement a waste management plan to reduce input materials, and then determine appropriate waste handling, storage, transportation and incident response procedures.
  • Complete specialist training for high-risk activities like removing asbestos and other hazardous construction materials with a registered training organisation (RTO) like Coates.
  • To prevent project delays, keep good records that demonstrate compliance.
  • Use zero or low-emission equipment, such as solar and hybrid. Speak with a Coates Product Specialist to find the right Greener Choices equipment for your next job.
  • Employ techniques like modular construction to reduce construction waste and minimise noise and water pollution.
  • A little research goes a long way, so consult the many industry guides that share best practice on reduce the environmental impact of construction.

Talk to your local Coates team for expert advice, equipment hire and training to help you manage your environmental impacts.

Sources and resources

1Ellen McArthur Foundation: reimagining our buildings and spaces for a circular economy

2National Waste Report 2022

3National Environment Protection Measures

State and territory EPA links:

ACT; NSW; Queensland; South Australia; Tasmania; Northern Territory; Victoria; Western Australia

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