Circular culture in the construction industry requires creative life cycle thinking and actions

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2020-02-11 Camilla Sederholm

When aiming for a climate-neutral society that uses natural resources sustainably, building culture must also be purposefully steered towards the principles of circular economy.

This goal will not be reached simply by focusing on the energy efficiency of buildings and energy-conserving building solutions. It is important to select climate-friendly construction materials and sources of electricity and heat based on renewable forms of energy in the planning stages of new buildings and renovations.

Selection of construction products made of recycled materials expanding

The Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) surveyed the market situation of construction products made of recycled materials in the spring of 2019 on behalf of the KEINO Competence Centre for Sustainable and Innovative Public Procurement. The survey shows that there are already many recycled construction materials on the market and that people are interested in the recyclability of construction products.

The Finnish products on the market include various insulation products made of glass wool or reclaimed paper. Other available products include both Finnish and foreign foam glass materials for ground insulation as well as entire building elements primarily made of recycled glass. There are also new circular economy and recycling services for insulation on the market. A third group of recycled construction materials consists of various wood, plastic and plastic composite products for building patios and wet spaces, for example.

In the survey, the manufacture of aluminium, steel and concrete out of virgin raw materials was found to be extremely energy-intensive and often expensive. Aluminium and steel are already heavily recycled in the process industry as long as there is sufficient supply of materials. So far, reusing concrete is not quite as functional, but research is being conducted on the matter. For example, cement can be replaced in concrete by other, less energy-intensive substances. The survey also covered naturally renewable construction materials that might play a larger role in circular economy.

However, recycled materials are not sufficient enough for fulfilling the rapidly increasing industrial demand for construction materials at a global level. In fact, increasing the use of recycled materials is more focused on improving resource and energy efficiency and cutting back on waste volumes and emissions. Nevertheless, the sustainability gap cannot be remedied simply by recycling and sorting waste. Therefore, let us look at the core issue a little closer.

Construction industry consumes half of global raw materials

Many analyses show that the large material consumption of the construction industry and the abundance of extractable land resources required for construction are at the heart of the problem. In terms of weight, the share of the construction industry constitutes about 50% of all modern consumption of natural resources as well as climate emissions. In addition, the construction industry consumes about one third of all water used around the world and produces about half of all the waste in the EU.

By observing trends, we can see that we are about to face an enormous challenge. According to the International Resource Panel of the UN, the global use of materials is picking up speed. It has more than tripled from the year 1970 and may double by 2050 if we do not act. At the World Circular Economy Forum held in Helsinki in June, Zeenat Niazi from the India-based non-profit organisation Development Alternatives gave the audience a great deal to think about. In her address, she referred to an Indian study, according to which an effort to recycle all construction waste would only fulfil 2% of the material needs of new construction projects. This demonstrates the incredible pace of construction in one of the largest growth centres in the world.

Increasing the use of recycled materials in construction is essential

Reusing construction products is a key challenge for our society and a vital objective of circular economy. One of the most well-known Nordic examples of this mindset is the business idea by the Danish Gamle Mursten where old bricks are given a new life in facades and interior design. Another example comes from the architect company Lendager Group and its fascinating construction projects from recent years, focusing on circular economy and the reuse of demolished building elements. Among other things, the company headed Copenhagen’s new UN17 Village residential project spanning 400 apartments, aimed to fulfil all the 17 global sustainability goals of the UN.

To make future reuse of materials easier, it is important to design new buildings with controlled demolition in mind. This also enables the use of construction materials in new locations and for new purposes which, as a result, also prevents the unnecessary destruction of materials. At the same time, the maintenance of electrical networks and piping is also made easier. In addition, flexible interior design extends the service life of buildings and materials. It is also important to systematically document the material information of procured products for future needs.

In the best-case scenario, questions of climate and resources go hand in hand as the leading theme of sustainable development. Who, then, is responsible for steering the construction culture towards circular economy?

Municipalities play a vital role

In Finland, most construction project take place in municipalities, which is why the role of municipalities as initiators and promoters of circular economy-based construction projects is significant. Once the municipal circular economy strategy has been formulated and approved, the next natural step is to generate circular economy requirements for procurements in municipal construction projects, city plans and plot consignment documents.

The goals could also be made clearer by preparing extremely tangible maximum requirements for the carbon footprints of buildings from a life cycle point of view but also minimum requirements for their carbon handprints. The publication (in Finnish) Kiertotalouskriteerit rakennetun ympäristön hankkeille (‘Criteria for projects in built environment based on circular economy’) by the Green Building Council Finland uses examples to illustrate how municipalities can formulate the requirements for observing perspectives of circular economy in construction.

Senior Coordinator Camilla Sederholm works on questions of circular economy at the Centre for Sustainable Consumption and Production of the Finnish Environment Institute. She prepares international initiatives on the subject in cooperation with operators from other Nordic countries. Camilla’s areas of expertise include political steering instruments on product policy and sustainable procurement. In her free time, her activities include local politics, yoga, building projects and cultivating plants in the archipelago.

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