Your lawyers since 1722

EU Roadmap Series – Part 3: Waste and Circularity

By Tina Paillet, RICS Senior Vice President.

At the end of May 2022, WorldGBC launched an EU Policy Whole Life Carbon Roadmap for the built environment.

In this series of blogs from WorldGBC, we are looking at how we developed the Roadmap, at our vision for a decarbonised built environment in the EU and how to get there. We’ll be speaking to some of the people who were involved in the process along the way to get their insights on how this Roadmap can catalyse political action and the steps we can all take to support its implementation.

In this third instalment, Tina Paillet, RICS Senior Vice President, explores the role of Waste and Circularity in decarbonising the EU’s built environment.

What is Waste and Circularity in the building sector?

The building sector generates around one third of all Europe’s waste and half of its extracted materials.

This considerable footprint includes both waste that is generated during construction, such as the products of demolition and packaging, as well as materials that are deemed surplus to requirements due to overordering or miscalculations. This waste can take many forms, from concrete, wood and tiles, to glass, soil, plastic and insulation.

The level of waste currently produced is highly unsustainable, and follows a ‘take-make-waste’ model, in which raw materials for construction are extracted, used to construct buildings, which are then demolished and what is left can often be discarded or downcycled.

Moving away from ‘take-make-waste’

In order to meet the EU’s climate goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, EU policy must scale up its ambition around circularity and move away from a take-make-waste model. 

The idea of circularity is to move towards a system whereby the construction industry prioritises keeping materials in use for as long as possible to maximise their value, before recovering and regenerating products when a building reaches the end of its life. This involves a greater focus on reusing, repairing, renovating, upcycling or recycling materials rather than disposing of them after they have been used. This shift involves decisions that should be made at the very start of a building’s design process. From a semantics standpoint, I would even say that we should stop using the word waste and start talking more about secondary resources or even “re-loved” materials!

By embracing this circular model, the construction industry can reduce the amount of virgin materials it requires, reducing its embodied carbon footprint significantly in the process. For example, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that a circular economy could reduce global CO2 emissions from building materials by 38% in 2050.

Circular Economy: the role of EU policy

The European Commission policy framework must enforce and encourage greater circularity and ultimately design waste out of the construction value chain.

Firstly, building regulations must be updated to enable a dramatic increase in the reuse of construction products and materials, and encourage efficient recycling of construction and demolition by-products. These measures must be complemented with enhanced standards and legislation for how construction professionals should deal with materials both on site and in a building’s end of life phase.

To ensure that policymakers are working hand in hand with the industry, additional measures should be introduced that stimulate market demand for reusable and secondary materials when they become more widely available. This includes EU and government funding for accessible reuse and recycling facilities as well as encouraging carbon credits for re-used materials which will support the sector in taking on the challenge of becoming a more circular industry and avoiding unnecessary carbon emissions, waste streams and resource depletion. 

Of particular interest, the European Commission just published their proposal to certify carbon removals  where they consider that long-lasting products and materials, such as wood-based construction products, can also keep carbon bound over several decades or longer. 

Which are the key EU policy levers for Waste and Circularity?

You can read a full timeline of EU policy recommendations for waste and circularity on pages 30-35 of the #BuildingLife EU Policy WLC Roadmap. Policy levers that should be used to tackle the circularity of buildings include the following:

At the EU level, the Green Taxonomy and the Circular criteria recommended by the Platform for Sustainable Finance (PSF) to the EU Commission could be a key lever and calls for : Assets to comprise at least 50% from a combination of re-used components, recycled content, or responsibly-sourced renewable materials. The 50% should be made up from at least 15% from re-used components and at least 15% from recycled content.

The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) sets standards for new and existing buildings. As a first step the EPBD should propose that Member States set ambitious national targets for reuse and recycling in construction projects as well as for the use of circular materials. These requirements should eventually be introduced into the EPBD itself, increasing over time to ensure maximum resource efficiency by 2050.

More widely, the Waste Framework Directive (WFD) sets measures to increase the efficiency of how resources are used by applying waste prevention and treatment measures. The WFD should incorporate a series of measures including a ban on construction waste entering landfill, as well as a timeline towards an incineration ban on construction waste.

While the remit of the Roadmap was largely limited to the building level, at the product level, the Construction Products Regulation (CPR) harmonises performance information on EU construction products and has the potential to set requirements for their lifecycle emissions and circularity. The CPR should evolve towards setting minimum standards for the reusability and recyclability of construction products.

Finally, the EU Public Procurement Directive and relevant Green Public Procurement (GPP) criteria can also require circularity requirements to be included to specify higher reuse of materials, minimum recycled content and the design approaches to be followed. We will look at this area more closely in our next blog on Sustainable Procurement.

We explore these and many more policy measures in the EU Policy Whole Life Carbon Roadmap. For the full timeline of the Roadmap’s policy recommendations on how EU policy on waste and circularity can facilitate the full decarbonisation of the built environment by 2050, read the full document here.