How to make a circular economy work for buildings –

EU thinkers and policy makers love to talk about best practice. As Europe seeks ways to reduce carbon emissions in a circular economy, it is important to remember that ‘doing’ here does not mean repetition. It means to act. This means finding the best concrete examples of circular and energy-efficient building practices and making them a daily reality.

Olympia Dolla is responsible for sustainable construction at Eurima, the European association of insulation manufacturers.

When it comes to circular construction, Europe today faces a fundamental economic problem. The relatively low cost of landfilling makes it difficult to attract sustainable alternatives such as recovery, reuse and recycling. Fundamentally increasing these alternative pathways is a priority, if we do not want a European Renovation Wave to be accompanied by a wave of waste going to landfill.

Today, Europe has the opportunity to change things. By rethinking the costs involved, landfilling will no longer be an option. There should also be a clear timetable for banning the sending of recyclables to landfill, as is already the case in some EU countries.

Over the past two years, the EU has adopted policies under a European Circular Economy Action Plan. The circular economy is an important element of the Green Deal, the European agenda for sustainable growth. At the heart of the Green Deal and the circular economy will be an EU Renovation Wave, intended to boost building renovation rates in EU countries.

The construction sector now faces both a huge challenge and a great opportunity, given the renovation rates that will be driven by these programs of measures. At the same time, practical and technological barriers to a circular economy can be overcome through common guidelines for material collection. These should include information on the composition of construction products, in order to encourage the use of non-toxic, easily recyclable materials.

Mineral wool insulation is a material with excellent recycling potential. A study by the EU’s JRC in March this year recognized this, naming mineral wool as one of five waste streams with the potential to increase recovery and recycling rates through the development of “criteria end of specific waste and by-products at EU level”.

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

It would be a waste of a valuable resource. Mineral wool fibers can be recycled an indefinite number of times. New products made from recycled materials will have the same high quality standards for performance and worker protection.

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

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 building materials back into the loop. Further simplification and streamlining of the procedures already set out in these flagship chemicals and waste policies would encourage waste recovery, while supporting key EU environmental, health and safety rules.

The circular economy today: thinking in circles

Eurima, the European Association of Insulation Manufacturers representing the interests of all major mineral wool producers across Europe, supports the transition to a circular economy through best practices. The 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 building practices more generally. Industries across Europe need to boost circularity. This means encouraging the use and recovery of sustainable materials.

EU circular economy plans affect the entire lifecycle of products, from design and sourcing of raw materials to end-of-life recovery. Properly used, EU policies and industry experience can provide guidance to all materials processing industries, including manufacturers of construction products. This would help keep the resources used in the EU economy for as long as possible.

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

In addition to recycling, reuse is certainly a principle that should be favored as much as possible. This would contribute significantly to reducing the carbon footprint of products. In the case of mineral wool, the 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 in the world are used for buildings. The construction sector alone is responsible for more than 35% of the waste generated in the EU. The built environment requires large amounts of natural resources. This is why the EU Green Deal and Circular Economy Action Plan rightly identify the importance of construction and demolition waste recovery targets, in order to increase circularity and in the part of the Renovation Wave.

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

The recovery of “post-consumer” waste generated during renovation or demolition work remains a challenge for the entire construction sector. This waste must be recovered, to avoid sending valuable resources to landfill and instead use them as secondary raw materials, replacing virgin and non-renewable materials.

Plans to support European economic growth through self-sufficiency and independence, for energy and materials, have taken much of Europe by surprise. But there are plenty of best practices to build on as Europe moves towards a net-zero and sustainable economy. Now is the time to set the stage for action and building that will endure.

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