Excavated soils: The biggest source of waste you’ve never heard of

Excavated soils are currently considered waste under EU law and are therefore disposed in landfills. Yet, 80% of those soils aren’t contaminated and could be safely reutilised elsewhere if a proper traceability system was put in place. [Med Photo Studio / Shutterstock]

Soils extracted from construction sites are by far the biggest source of waste produced in Europe every year – five times the amount of household waste – yet governments are turning a blind eye to the issue.

Most people tend to associate waste with household trash piling up in the streets or in landfills. Yet, according to Eurostat, excavated soils are the biggest source of waste across Europe in volume.

“For example, in France, it’s 150 million tonnes produced every year,” said Emmanuel Cazeneuve, founder and CEO of Hesus, a French start-up dealing with the management and disposal of construction waste.

“It’s five times the volume of household waste,” he remarked, saying most countries around Europe probably have proportionally similar figures.

Excavated soils are currently considered waste under EU law and are therefore disposed of in landfills. Yet, 80% of those soils are not contaminated and could be safely reutilised elsewhere if a proper traceability system was put in place, Hesus says.

“We don’t have a clear picture on this at European level because of the lack of traceability,” Cazeneuve told EURACTIV. “Today, it is not easy to know the precise volume of excavated soils produced in France, Germany or Poland, because the databases do not exist” or the figures are drowned in industrial waste statistics, he said.

Moreover, there are hardly any checks at disposal sites, which leaves the door open to illegal dumping of contaminated soils coming from old industrial grounds. For instance, “in France, there are currently no checks carried out on excavated soils disposed in landfills,” Cazeneuve said.

As a result, no one knows for sure where excavated soils are being disposed, leaving a major blind spot in Europe’s efforts to tackle pollution and promote a circular economy.

“Some homes or infrastructure were built on polluted land. And so today we face potentially preventable health scandals. This is why it will become a real issue at the European level,” Cazeneuve said.

At the EU level, policymakers are only starting to grasp the issue. In its circular economy action plan published in March last year, the European Commission singled out construction waste among the seven sectors requiring urgent attention from policymakers, alongside electronics, packaging, plastics, textiles and others.

Promoting “the safe, sustainable and circular use of excavated soils” is mentioned in the plan as part of a list of actions the EU executive is pledging to take. A strategy for a “sustainable built environment” will be tabled later this year but it is not yet clear if it will include a traceability obligation for excavated soils.

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The European Commission unveiled its new circular economy action plan on Wednesday (11 March), confirming the EU’s intention of halving municipal waste by 2030, and suggesting to offer consumers a new “right to repair” for computers and smartphones.

Flanders taking the lead

While the European Union is getting its act together, some countries have taken the lead.

In Belgium’s Flanders region, all movements of excavated soils must be registered in a national database. This cost €0.05 per cubic metre of soil but Cazeneuve says the associated savings amount to €2/m3 in avoided costs related to landfill taxes and waste transportation.

For large construction groups like France’s Vinci or Spain’s ACS, these are potentially substantial cost savings. Instead of moving truckloads of soils to remote landfills, they could simply reutilise them on other construction sites closer to their own operations. “20% savings is extremely interesting in view of the volumes, which are significant,” Cazeneuve says.

To unlock those savings and ensure better traceability, what the EU could do is require member countries to launch similar databases at the national level. “This is what France has started to put in place and I think we could extend this obligation to all other European countries,” Cazeneuve said.

The carbon savings are also not negligible. Today, managing and transporting excavated soils represents around 7-8% of the carbon costs of a building site, making waste treatment a growing issue.

Until now, construction groups could afford to ignore their waste problem. “After seeking low-carbon cement, they will find that they also have to tackle their waste generation and therefore soil management will become a real issue,” Cazeneuve predicted.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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