Transporting construction waste by water on London’s canals

With ever rising fuel costs, gridlock on London’s roads and growing concern about the levels of air pollution in the Capital, the arguments for transporting construction waste on London’s canals where feasible to do so are getting stronger by the day.  We explore the opportunities and perceived barriers for the construction industry...

Canals are ideal for the transportation of bulk, low value, non-perishable and non-urgent loads so there is a huge potential for transporting construction waste by water. Despite this, the River Thames is currently the only inland waterway that is carrying significant quantities of waste.

According to figures from the European Commission, CO2 emissions for loads by inland waterway are in the region of 40-66g (per tonne/km) compared to 207-280g for road. And according to the Canal & River Trust, a typical one barge convoy journey navigating the larger industrial waterways of the UK can carry the equivalent to 40 or 50 lorry journeys.

In the London area canal barge payloads - although smaller than some of the bigger waterways of the north - still allow c.60 - 80t per barge to be transported efficiently. Bulk materials such as inert soils and aggregates, together with lighter more voluminous loads can be hauled between ‘points of origin’ and ‘points of destination’ on the waterways e.g. loading/discharging facilities such as Powerday’s modern wharf at Old Oak Sidings on the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal. In terms of typical construction waste material emanating from waterside developments, a single barge would easily carry the equivalent of 12 skip loads, therefore removing 24 HGV lorry journeys from London’s roads. The canals of London can undoubtedly make a valuable contribution to the sustainable transport needs of our Capital city.  What is holding back progress in this area?

Fear of the costs?

Many construction companies can see the benefits of transporting construction waste by water where their sites sit adjacent to a canal or navigable river. In practical terms, use of barges reduces the number of traffic movements into and out of site and eases site logistics particular where space and site access is restricted. In sustainability terms, it helps contractors and their clients meet ambitious environmental targets and planning obligations imposed by local authorities via the planning process. But what about the costs?

There’s an unfounded fear that the cost of transporting construction waste by water will be much greater than transporting these materials by road. Given the costs of running low emission lorry fleets in London these days coupled with the real costs of congestion on our Capital’s roads, this isn’t necessarily the case. At Powerday, our aim is to be cost neutral with road wherever possible. Stating such an aspiration at the outset of any discussions then allows contractors/developers to concentrate on the wider benefits that will inevitably accrue to them ranging from more efficient site management, better relationships with neighbouring businesses/occupiers, achievement of their own ‘corporate social responsibility’ targets this and reputational/PR benefits that flow from such initiatives, all of which represent ‘value’ for the company.

Knowing where to start

It is understandable that most construction companies will have only limited knowledge of London’s waterways and the myriad of considerations associated with transporting construction waste by barge.

Where do you start? How do you go about carrying out a feasibility study? What are the factors to consider in any realistic cost/benefit analysis? What information do you include in the planning application? How do you ultimately satisfy Section106 requirements?

At Powerday, we have staff at director level who are very familiar with the waterways with the ability to assist clients/contractors and developers in any initial assessment of a specific project. Knowledge of any operational or navigational constraints that might exist on a specific canal is very important in such assessments, as is an understanding of available barge operators and their respective capabilities.

With this detailed knowledge of both the waterways and the practicalities of moving waste by water in London, coupled with a good understanding of the requirements of Canal & River Trust (CRT being the body which owns and operates the canal system nationally), Powerday is well placed to carry out feasibility studies to support our construction clients in fully understand the viability of transporting waste by water. If involved at the early stages, we can feed into early discussions with CRT and other relevant agencies e.g. Local Authorities/GLA/Environment Agency etc, and ultimately leading to the submission of a planning application.

Logistics and operational provision

Assuming a feasibility study demonstrates that transportation of waste by water is viable for your construction project and the planning application is duly successful, how do contractors/developers go about setting up and managing waterborne operations?

Traditional construction logistics companies may not have the expertise and experience to manage the logistics of waste by water. Conversely, Powerday combines knowledge of London’s waterways and handling materials by barge with expertise in providing construction logistics services to London’s construction companies. We can deliver and manage the operational provision of waste by water as an integrated on-site logistics package. This includes providing barges and containers as well as personnel and equipment to load and off-load barges.

Waste at the other end

Of course, it’s one thing getting the waste off site by water but that’s only part of the picture. You need a waste company with access to a public or private wharf preferably immediately adjacent to their processing site or Materials Recovery Facility (MRF).

Powerday’s Old Oak Sidings site in Willesden, North West London is one such site. It is located on a 26 mile lock-free section of the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, the longest canal in Britain linking London and Birmingham. With our own canal wharf, materials can be unloaded just metres from our MRF where construction waste can be processed to ensure maximum recycling and recovery.

Getting a project off the ground

Transporting construction waste by water is an unknown quantity for much of the construction industry but the potential and the benefits are huge. Yes, it needs 100% commitment from the contractor and the client. And yes, it requires correct support at feasibility and planning stages, and day-to-day logistics management by experienced personnel. But for the right opportunity and those willing to take the leap, we are ready to make transporting construction waste by water a reality.

For a free consultation on using London’s waterways to transport your construction waste by water, please contact Powerday today.

This article is based on an opinion piece that appeared on Construction News in March 2020 'Go with the flow: how construction could move more by water'.