Simply the Best: How to Make a Circular Economy Work for Buildings

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

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EU thinkers and policy makers love to talk about Best Practice. As Europe looks for ways to cut carbon emissions in a circular economy, it is important to remember that “practice” here doesn’t mean rehearsal. It means action. It means finding the best real-life examples of circular, energy efficient building practices and making them an everyday reality.  

Olympia Dolla is the Sustainable Construction Manager at Eurima, the European Insulation Manufacturers Association.

When it comes to circular construction, Europe today faces a basic economic problem. The comparatively low cost of landfill makes it difficult for sustainable alternatives like recovery, reuse and recycling to look attractive. Fundamentally increasing these alternative routes is a priority, if we don’t want an EU Renovation Wave to be accompanied by a wave of waste going to landfill.

Now Europe has an opportunity to change things. By rethinking the costs involved, landfill will not be an option anymore. There should also be a clear timeline to ban sending recyclable products to landfill, as is already the case in some EU countries.

Over the past two years, the EU has been adopting policies as part of a European Circular Economy Action Plan. The Circular Economy is an important part of the Green Deal, Europe’s agenda for sustainable growth. Central to both the Green Deal and the Circular Economy will be an EU Renovation Wave, intended to boost building renovation rates around EU countries.

The construction sector now faces both a huge challenge and a great opportunity, given the renovation rates to be driven by these policy packages. At the same time, practical and technological barriers to a circular economy can be overcome through common guidelines for the collection of materials. These should include information about what construction products are made of, to encourage the use of non-toxic materials that can easily be recycled.

Mineral wool insulation is a material with an excellent recycling potential. An EU JRC study in March this year recognised this, naming mineral wool as one of five waste streams with potential to boost recovery and recycling rates through the development of specific “EU-wide end-of waste and by-product criteria.”.

Mineral wool waste from production sites is already managed in such a way that most of it will be recycled. But on construction and demolition sites, several hundred thousand tons of waste from mineral wool materials go to landfill every year. With the development of the EU Renovation Wave, we risk seeing this figure increase significantly.

This would be a waste of a precious resource. Mineral wool fibres can be recycled an indefinite number of times. New products made of recycled material will have the same high-quality standards in terms of performance and workers protection.

In the EU, regulatory and administrative barriers to waste recovery could be overcome through a sensible use of existing rules. Notably, EU chemicals legislation REACH and CLP should be better used alongside the EU Waste Framework Directive and better recognize the circularity potential of products.

Building on common ground in chemicals and waste legislation can remove practical barriers to waste recovery, such as lengthy and time-consuming permit procedures. This would bring recyclable construction materials back into the loop. Greater simplification and streamlining of procedures already set out in these seminal chemicals and waste policies would encourage waste recovery, at the same time as supporting Europe’s world leading environmental, health and safety rules.

The Circular Economy Today: Thinking in the Round

Eurima, the European Insulation Manufacturers Association representing the interests of all major mineral wool producers throughout Europe, supports the transition to a circular economy through best practice. Ideas set out in the circular economy action plan can be used to develop some of the best initiatives already underway in the mineral wool industry, as well as to promote sustainable construction practices more generally. Industries around Europe need to boost circularity. This means encouraging the use and recovery of sustainable materials.

EU circular economy plans affect the whole life cycle of products, from design and raw material sourcing to end of life recovery. Properly used, EU policy and industry experience can provide guidance to all material processing industries, including construction product manufacturers. This would help keep resources in use in the EU economy for as long as possible.

Glass wool and Stone wool products and the mineral wool industry have a longstanding tradition of promoting circular production processes across  product streams. For instance, by-products from other industries, such as steel, are used in stone wool production as a raw material, in the form of briquettes. This is a perfect example of upcycling on an industrial scale, avoiding sending low-value by-products to landfill. Glass wool uses glass culets that come from recycled glass.

In addition to recycling, reuse  is certainly a principle that should be prioritised as much as is possible. This would significantly contribute to reducing the carbon footprint of products. In the case of mineral wool, boards and rolls could be reused under certain conditions to ensure performance and safety.

Next Steps: Rethink – Reuse – Recycle

About 50% of  the raw materials extracted globally are used for buildings. The construction sector alone is responsible for over 35% of waste generated in the EU. The built environment requires vast amounts of natural resources. This is why the EU Green Deal and the Circular Economy Action Plan rightly identify the importance of recovery targets for construction and demolition waste, in order to increase circularity and as part of the Renovation Wave.

The Green Deal proposal found many obstacles in the way of a circular economy. Now is the time to look for ways of making the Circular Economy Action Plan and the Green Deal work.

Recovery of “post-consumer” waste generated during renovation or demolition is still a challenge for the whole construction industry. This waste should be recovered, in order to avoid sending valuable resources to landfill and instead using them as secondary raw materials, as a substitute for virgin and non-renewable materials.

Plans to sustain European economic growth through sufficiency and independence, for energy and materials, took much of Europe by surprise. But there is much best practice to build on as Europe moves to a net zero, sustainable economy. Now is the time to set the stage for action and construction that will endure.

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