Building towards a circular economy in construction

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Julie Girling MEP [Julie Girling/Twitter]

The European Commission’s Circular Economy Package, ditched last year and due to be relaunched this week, has already been delayed too long, writes Julie Girling. The delay will only be worth it if the new proposal is strong enough on building waste.

Julie Girling is a British Conservative MEP for the South West of England. She is the European Conservatives and Reformists Group environment spokesperson, president of the European Parliament’s Gypsum Forum, and was a lead MEP on the negotiations of the Circular Economy package that was axed under the European Commission’s “better regulation” strategy. 

I have always been a keen proponent of recycling, first at local level and now at European level. I see effective waste management as a key policy issue. So, for me, the European Commission’s Circular Economy package has already been delayed far too long. The delay will only prove warranted if the new version is better, smarter and more proportionate.

Construction is a strategically important sector for our economy. Waste from construction represents one-third of all the waste generated in the EU and that is a major issue for the environment. The Commission’s new Circular Economy proposal must therefore be robust on building waste.

One tough and ambitious measure would be to introduce a mandatory building audit prior to a building’s demolition. This goes further than soft measures like guidelines, and beyond the protocol for construction and demolition waste management currently under development. It would allow operators to assess what is recyclable in the building and in what volumes, so ensuring maximum waste separation and higher rates of recycling. Today, buildings in most EU member states are simply demolished rather than dismantled and this mixes the waste, resulting in valuable construction materials going to landfill.

There are good examples of industry taking the initiative in this area. What plasterboard manufacturers have done is work with a consortium of construction and demolition companies, waste collectors and recyclers – partners right across the value chain – to show that reusing-recovering-recycling is possible and that landfill from construction waste can be minimised.

Their three-year project, called Gysum-to-Gypsum or GtoG, has shown us how a circular economy can be achieved via a collaborative approach and a change of mind-set on the supply side as well as the demand side of the industry. Significantly higher rates of plasterboard recycling can be achieved where buildings have been selectively deconstructed and demolition made profitable. This experience is especially significant because it can be adapted and applied to any other type of material used in lightweight construction.

Another core principle that I expect to see in the Commission’s proposal goes to the heart of the circular economy concept: product design. Buildings should be designed for disassembly as a best practice in construction. The Commission, working alongside national authorities and the industry, can do a lot to encourage and promote this across Europe.

In addition, we need to ensure optimal use of our raw materials. Concrete, for example, is a 100% recyclable material: at the end of its life, it can be recycled either back into concrete (closed loop) or into other applications such as a road base (open loop). It is essential that we maximise both open and closed loop recycling. Major building repairs, renovation, adaptation and redevelopment are increasing in most EU countries so using fewer resources and more efficiently brings clear benefits.

I believe strongly that in order to encourage growth and foster innovation in the area of the circular economy, there should be access to funding which will help drive sensible processes and long-term gains. Of course, to achieve this end, some upfront financing will be necessary. I see this as the very reason President Juncker established the European Fund for Strategic Investment (the financing arm of the Junker Investment Plan) and I will be asking the Commission to take this into account once the proposal comes out. We should be rewarding those sectors that do well and add value to the single market; indeed that is one of the main benefits of legislating at an EU level on these important environmental issues.

Achieving a circular economy in the construction sector will require a combination of industry dedication and legislative structures, in a way that is cost-effective. I am committed to making the Commission’s circular economy action plan and proposals as achievable as possible, especially for SMEs. Given the scale of the sector, there is significant scope for job creation, and I will continue to press for the right balance between regulatory and non-regulatory solutions to deliver the best practical outcomes for the environment and the economy.

>>Read: Full coverage on Circular Economy