This article is part of our special report Sustainable construction.
SPECIAL REPORT /The European Commission’s new Circular Economy package of waste and recycling laws, to be launched tomorrow (2 December), will be pored over by a construction industry keen to prove its sustainability credentials.
EURACTIV can today reveal that while the new rules do sketch out long-term measures to boost recycling and reuse of construction waste, it fails to increase the EU-wide 2020 target.
The old package was axed under Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans’ drive for “better regulation”. Faced with criticism for binning the pending bill, Timmermans promised a retabled package would be more ambitious.
Previous leaks of the package revealed the Commission would instead lower recycling and landfill targets, calling Timmermans’ promise into question. Instead of the 70% recycling and zero landfill target by 2030 envisioned in the old package, the new targets are 65% and a 10% landfill goal.
According to the Commission, construction and demolition waste accounts for a third of the EU’s total waste production per year, amounting to some 450-500 million tonnes.
The latest leaked version of the Waste Framework Directive, part of the package, states that member states should promote sorting systems for construction and demolition waste for at least wood, aggregates, metal, glass and plaster.
Koen Coppenholle, is chief executive of Cembureau, the European Cement Association. Cement is used to make concrete, which in turn accounts for at least a third of EU construction and demolition waste.
“Better sorting and collecting will mean more of this demolition waste is available for recycling – and it will be clean and uncontaminated, making it easier to use,” Coppenholle said.
For construction and demolition, the ambition remains a 70% target for all material recovery operations by 2020, according to the draft package, which is still subject to change.
But European Aluminium, an industry body, said this EU target would be more ambitious if it included specific goals for re-use and recycling of materials. Aluminium is used in construction – for example, in window frames.
Without that separation, European Aluminium said member states would continue to send the huge majority of its construction and demolition waste to be backfilled. Backfilling is when waste is crushed and used in, for example, landscaping.
European Aluminium argues that that takes a lot of material out of the circle of the economy, as it cannot be reused. It points to Commission figures showing that the vast majority of member states’ material recovery target is made up of backfilling rather than recycling.
The executive will likely point to sector specific aspects in the action plan it will present tomorrow to rebut those accusations. Aspects related to eco-design, food waste, and, at first glance, construction and demolition support its argument.
But industry sources told EURACTIV that many of the “new” construction and demolition initiatives in the action plan were already planned by the executive before the old Circular Economy package was ditched in December last year.
Drafting pre-demolition guidelines (expected 2017), voluntary industry-wide recycling protocols for construction and demolition waste (2016), and developing indicators and incentives for the lifecycle environmental performance of buildings (2017), were already planned by the Commission. It had simply shifted the planned measures within the framework of the new Circular Economy package, sources said.
EURACTIV was unable to ask the Commission for comment on that issue because the executive has a policy of never commenting on leaks.
Obstacles and drivers
The action plan is not binding legislation in the same way as the retabled directives on waste and packaging, but it does point the direction the executive will follow in the future.
Eliana Garcés Tolón, senior economist and deputy head of unit, economic analysis, at DG Grow, spoke at the Concrete Initiative conference in Brussels on 19 November.
She stressed the need to create secondary markets for waste, adding, “We’re coming on track to do that – thinking has shifted.”
That was supported by recent remarks by Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella. He told EURACTIV, “We will do our best to support the [construction] sector and add incentives where we can.”
The Commission is currently conducting a study to identify obstacles and drivers for construction and demolition waste recycling, as well as best practices.
Stéphane Arditi is products and waste policy manager at the European Environmental Bureau. He said, “With one third of all waste generated coming from construction waste, the Commission is right to tackle this waste stream and limit how much of it ends up in landfills.”
Often, the infrastructure is not in place to allow for quality recycled materials to reach a potential client in a cost-efficient manner, according to the Concrete Initiative, a construction industry body.
Garcés Tolón said at the conference it was vital that the construction industry could operate effectively in Europe. Burdens to cross-border needed to be removed, she said, and public procurement rules should be looked at to incentivise greater efficiency.
But at this stage, the action plan only states that targeted guidelines will be developed. That will not be simple.
At the event, Christophe Sykes, director general of Construction Products Europe queried whether the new circular economy would cover new products or buildings, or all products. In the case of old buildings, he questioned who would own the waste.
Tomorrow’s launch is just a first step. Any final package must be agreed by both the European Parliament and Council of Ministers.
Julie Girling was one of the lead MEPs on the ditched Circular Economy package. Writing in EURACTIV, she called for mandatory building audits before demolition.
“This goes further than soft measures like guidelines, and beyond the protocol for construction and demolition waste management currently under development,” she said.
“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.”
Buildings should be designed for disassembly as a best practice in construction, Girling said.
It was vital to ensure optimal use of raw materials, said Girling, citing concrete as an example.
“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,” she said.
“The European Commission’s Circular Economy package has already been delayed far too long,” said Girling, a British Conservative member of the European Conservatives and Reformists group.
“The delay will only prove warranted if the new version is better, smarter and more proportionate.”