How to unlock the circular potential of the built environment

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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As the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan 2.0 turns one year old and many initiatives to foster sustainable consumption and resource efficiency are still being rolled out, a major opportunity remains – to unleash the circular potential of buildings and the construction sector, writes Laurent Chokoualé Datou, Vice President of Public Affairs at the International Copper Association.

The EU is accelerating its transition to a low-carbon and circular economy, under its flagship European Green Deal and with last year’s publication of the Circular Economy Action Plan 2.0. To achieve its green and circular ambitions, the EU must boost efficient resource use across the board. Yet buildings and the construction sector, with their high potential to contribute to sustainability goals, deserve particular attention.

Unleash the circular potential of buildings and construction

The built environment is responsible for over 35% of solid waste generated in the EU and accounts for almost half of all material extracted from natural sources, according to the European Commission. At the same time, it has the potential to contribute to Europe’s green ambitions: improving material efficiency could save up to 80% of greenhouse gas emissions from the material cycle of buildings.

The EU understands the importance of buildings and construction in achieving its goals and has taken its first major steps to address the sector. Last year’s Renovation Wave Strategy emphasised the need for more efficient and circular buildings, particularly ahead of the review of material recovery targets for construction waste by 2024.

2021 will be the year where strategy translates into legislative action. The Commission, eager to boost recycling rates and make the sector more sustainable overall, is exploring all possibilities as it prepares the revision of the Construction Products Regulation.

With several options under consideration, including environmental footprint systems, new requirements for product design to facilitate repair, and new recycled content targets for construction products, it is important to bear in mind that the success of the circular economy relies on shaping market forces to circular ends. Correct modelling of the recycling potential of building products at the end-of-life phase is critical for the sector to demonstrate the performance of, and meet the demand for sustainable buildings.

Urban Mining can unlock raw materials and improve recycling rates

Metals such as copper are already highly valued by recyclers and uniquely positioned to contribute to a circular economy. Copper can be recycled over and over again, with no loss or degradation of properties. About 50% of the copper used in Europe already comes from recycling, setting it on a path to become a cornerstone of the EU circular economy efforts.

As things stand, recycling rates can still be improved. A recent report by Fraunhofer Institute shows Urban Mining can be one important way to boost recycling. Where conventional mining secures raw materials by extracting and refining natural resources, Urban Mining does so from the stockpile of society’s products, cities and landfills. In 2018 alone, 24 million tonnes of copper entered the global urban mine in new products, while 13 million tonnes left it as products at the end of their use phase, a substantial potential source of secondary materials.

The right combination of policy choices, targets and incentives

The EU should give itself the means to reach its ambitious objectives for a true circular economy. However, to make the European built environment more circular and unleash the potential of metals, the right policies need to be developed.

Since sustainability is often difficult to measure, it is essential to set targets that are effective and to use fair and robust methods and indicators to assess and address the sustainability of construction products. When only recovery targets are set, construction waste can be used for backfilling instead of further reuse or recycling. To remedy this missed opportunity, ambitious recycling targets need to be set for material-specific fractions such as metals, to make the most of the 2.7 million tonnes of copper leaving the EU stock-in-use every year.

Recycling rates can be improved, and the construction sector requires effective goalposts to guide its progress. However, targets for recycled content can have a burdensome effect by restricting what should be a free-flowing market, and they will not increase recycling rates of highly recycled metals like copper. Instead, legislation should focus on developing a well-functioning market for secondary raw materials, which will ensure recycled materials re-enter the loop where they are most valued. Without sufficient demand for secondary materials, little incentive exists to improve recycling rates.

Here, both industry and legislators play an important role. Policy incentives can help provide adequate infrastructure for recycling and support the development and roll-out of advanced recycling technologies, which are instrumental to increase the recycling rates of construction waste as well as manufactured products.

Industry, for its part, can design its products for sustainability and make operations more circular by considering the material potential of things once considered waste. Industrial by-products and scrap, once overlooked, can be a valuable ingredient for more sustainable construction products.

No secondary raw materials without the right market conditions

The revision of the Construction Products Regulation is a golden opportunity to facilitate the emergence of a market for safe and sustainable secondary raw materials, including by-products from metallurgical processes. Iron silicate generated during copper smelting, refining, and recycling is a prime candidate for such reuse. It can be used in cement production to reduce the usage of primary materials, lowering the carbon footprint of production.

By establishing favourable market conditions for such recycled metals and by-products, the revised rules on construction products will match the political aspirations of a circular economy. If the EU can successfully put circularity at the heart of its ongoing legislative effort, the construction sector can unleash its potential with a solid contribution to a sustainable European built environment.

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