The future Circular Economy Package will aim to create a market for reused construction materials salvaged from demolition sites. EURACTIV France reports.
Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella wants to make construction one of the pillars of the Circular Economy—a goal backed by the European Cement Association, Cembureau. “We are central to the Circular Economy,” said Cembureau President Daniel Gauthier.
But so far, this is where the consensus ends. The Concrete Initiative conference, held in Brussels on 19 November, brought together the actors from across the construction sector to share their views on the subject.
Recycling in the construction sector implies reusing building materials, like rubble, in new projects. But in what proportions, and over what timescale?
Despite the upcoming publication of the Commission’s new Circular Economy package, expected in December, it is clear that the European executive and industry bodies are currently in opposing camps.
According to the Commission, building demolition accounts for around one third of the total volume of waste we produce – around 450 to 500 million tonnes per year. For the executive, this is far too much.
A small amount of this waste is already recycled in construction or reused in concrete, although the figures available are unreliable. But even in the best-performing member states, like Denmark, concrete tends to contain only a small percentage of recycled materials.
Jobs and growth ‘more important’ than the environment
The issue of job protection and creation, often seen as a major drawback to the introduction of new environmental standards, is a major concern for the Juncker Commission, and one that is likely to act as a brake on the ambition of the Circular Economy Package.
Eliana Garces Tolon is an economist at the Commission’s Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (DG GROW). According to her, “the Commission considers sustainable development in all its policies, but jobs and growth are more important. The construction sector suffered greatly during the crisis, and the rest of the economy is feeling the negative effects of this stagnation. So we are paying particular attention to this activity”.
The economist also hinted at the content of the future Circular Economy Package. She said that public contracts would be the first to adopt a new approach, whereby contractors would have to submit a lifecycle analysis of the building as a requirement of the call for tender.
“We have to see this new approach as an opportunity: services like the management of a building’s lifecycle can be included in the bid. Offering extra services should improve sales,” said Tolon, who would like to see a more service-based model adopted across all industrial sectors.
The Circular Economy Package will also give the Commission the chance to review the 2008 Waste Framework Directive. “We must create a real secondary market for waste,” Tolon said.
But this is a sensitive area for the trade unions. Werner Buelen, the political secretary for the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers (EFBWW), believes the cement industry is at an important crossroads. Pressure to cut costs by relocating is high, but in Turkey, Egypt and other North African countries, the indstry’s practices often take a heavy toll on the environment. “So it is up to us to adapt to climate change, we have to adopt new production methods,” the unionist said.
Industry concerns over the Circular Economy
Such outspoken willingness to commit to more stringent environmental standards has unsettled some in the construction industry, who have responded by highlighting its environmental credentials.
Industry representatives claim that “concrete has a light CO2 footprint”. This is based on the fact that the material is composed of 60% aggregates, 25% water and “only” 15% cement. But cement production releases large quantities of CO2, because of the need to dry limestone and clay, then to cook the mixture at 1,500°C.
The industry has already modified its practices by replacing the most polluting fossil fuels, like coal and fuel oil, with gas and renewable energies. By 2050, 60% of the energy used in the production of cement will come from alternative sources, compared to 36% today.
The concrete industry also boasts that it plays an indispensable role in renewable energy production: whether in offshore wind farms or hydroelectric dams, concrete is omnipresent and appears to be irreplaceable. Perhaps because of this fact, the industry seems in no hurry to clean up its environmental performance.
“We have to be very careful when establishing new standards. Concrete can be recycled, that’s all well and good, but what about insurance, safety, the reliability of European construction? Today, earthquakes in Europe are not deadly because of the excellent quality of our buildings. This is not true of Pakistan, for example,” warned Christopher Sykes, the director general of Construction Products Europe.
Similar concerns are shared by BusinessEurope, a group that represents many multinational companies in the EU. Alexander Kessler, a lobbyist from the German business organisation BDI, said it was important to be “cautious and take the time to make the right decisions”. He stressed the high number of European waste and recycling polices that are already ignored by some EU member states, including the Landfill Directive.
But Kestutis Sadauskas, the director of Green Economy at the Commission’s DG Environment, believes attitudes must change if the Circular Economy is to become a reality. This is why the Commission abandoned the previous package of reforms proposed by the Barroso Commission, to take a “more holistic approach which focusses not only on the lifecycle of products, but which also raises the questions of energy consumption and end-of-life materials, for example”.
According to the European civil servant, the same philosophy should be applied to construction. “We should really think about the need for construction and the use of buildings.”
Iceland’s policy of using school boarding houses as hotels in the summer is one example the EU could follow.