Circular economy in the building industry - EEB Report



Author: Will Needham Published on: March 6, 2021

Circular economy in the built environment

For centuries we have thought about design and construction as a linear process, whereby we procure the materials we need to construct the designs created by architects and engineers.

This has caused several problems:

  • production of construction materials can be a hugely energy-intensive process,
  • construction materials are a finite resource,
  • the disposal of construction materials at the end of their lives is frequently not thought through, meaning materials are sent to landfill.

These problems are backed up by data. By 2100, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates a carbon budget of 800bn tons CO2eq. At its current rate the material production sector alone will use more than this budget.

So what can be done about it? Well, there is another way. Transitioning the built environment sector from what is currently a very linear process to a more circular approach will bring about new challenges.

This article will explore a report that looks at these challenges and the policy interventions that might help us overcome them.

European Environmental Bureau Policy Brief

In March 2021, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) published a Policy Brief on the state of circular economy in European construction markets.

The EEB brief is particularly effective in that it goes beyond just stating how the suggested policy interventions will impact CO2 emissions, but also ties concurrent goals of halting biodiversity loss and economic factors too.

The report is broken into five main sections, with the first four sections providing a deep-dive into four of the biggest impact (a factor of how widespread their use is in the industry and how damaging they are for our environment to produce) materials.

Cement

Future Distributed has previously covered Cement and its alternatives in a previous article. From this article, we know that cement production is responsible for 8% of CO2 emissions globally, and must be one of the key targets for carbon-reduction measures.

The EEB report draws attention to the cement industry association’s carbon neutrality roadmap. The roadmap points to alternative fueling of cement plants (favouring biomass, rather than fossil fuel energy), and the use of carbon-capture and storage (CCS) technological solutions. Changes to clinker ratios are not seen as a priority by the cement industry at this time.

The policy suggestions in this category were:

  • Introduce over-specification requirements in green public procurement, building on a decreased weight/m² ratio,
  • Require a binding incremental share of recycled content in cement,
  • Require a binding incremental share of low-carbon alternative materials in clinker (such as volcanic ash, ground bottle glass),
  • Promote the use of standardized prefabricated cement elements in the market, starting from public buildings and large buildings,
  • Integrate these circular economy provisions in the revision of the Industrial Strategy.

Steel

The devastating impact of steel production on our environment cannot be underestimated. In fact it is the largest individual source of carbon pollution in Europe, excluding power plants.

The EEB paper highlights the commitments of major European steelmakers Arcelor Mittal and ThyssenKrupp and the European Steel Association, EUROFER. The latter two have pledged to reach ‘climate neutrality’ by 2050.

An industry report from Ramboll suggested that in 2050 between 50%-60% of steel procured in construction could be from reclaimed sources. Ramboll also call for a reduction in over-specification of construction steel.

The policy suggestions in this category were:

  • Reduce the losses of steel along the value chain and particularly at the design phase
  • Enable the use of secondary steel across a wider range of product groups globally (e.g. tackling copper contamination)
  • Require process shift through the adaptation of Union standards (EU BREF) and state aid schemes (e.g. conversion aids are limited to the direct reduction of steel-making using hydrogen produced through electrolysis, where the share of renewables is set at progressively higher rates starting from 50%)
  • Steel that cannot be produced via EAF route should not be allowed to be produced through the Blast Furnace route, unless it serves uses that are essential to achieving an environmental / climate benefit (e.g., steel grades needed for renewable energy production infrastructure)

Plastics

Construction accounts for 20% of the world’s plastic production. The production of plastic is both energy and emission-intensive; with the production of 1 tonne of plastic emitting around 2.5 tonnes of CO2.

As such, there is an abundance of opportunities to inject circular thinking into the entire life-cycle of plastic design, production, installation and removal.

The EEB report found that a combination of reuse and recycling could meet 60% of all plastic demand by 2050, cutting CO2 emissions by half.

The policy suggestions in this category were:

  • Promote the use of nature-based solution for cladding, insulation and structure (e.g., straw, hemp, clay, timber) in the Construction Building Materials directive and energy-performance related legislation
  • Phase out PVC from construction, due to its higher carbon footprint, combined with highly polluting life cycle, difficult recyclability and toxicity of recycled materials.
  • Ensure a longer lifespan of plastic products and closed loop recycling via product policy legislation
  • Remove hazardous chemicals that prevent full recycling

Glass

The challenges involved in decarbonizing the glass sector are slightly different from that of the steel and cement sectors. For a start, glass manufacturers are typically smaller, more widely distributed (geographically). This creates a unique challenge, for example Carbon Capture and Storage solutions become less efficient and in many cases unfeasible.

The main energy requirement for the production of glass comes from the high temperatures required to melt the glass. However, the industry is yet to roll out (on a large scale) the use of electricity from renewable sources for this purpose.

Instead, current efficiency drives from within the industry are focused mainly on material use and recycling of old glass containers to be melted down and re-used.

The policy suggestions in this category were:

  • Maximise reuse and closed loop recycling of container glass
  • Improve standards for product recycling
  • Promote harmonisation of size and performances to boost reuse of flat glass

Horizontal policy recommendations

In the final section of the EEB report, the authors suggested some high-level policy suggestions to tie together the European response. This article will not go into detail into these recommendations at this stage.

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