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There’s no way around it – the future of building and construction is circular


Marc Bosmans, Group Sustainability Director, Knauf Insulation 

Thomas Baguette, Glass Mineral Wool Recycling Business Development Manager, Knauf Insulation 

There’s no way around it – the future of building and construction is circular  

Responsible for using more than 50% of all extracted raw materials in Europe and generating over 35% of all waste, you cannot have a circular economy without the building and construction sector.

By sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing materials and products for as long as possible, a circular economy is the key to solving many of the world’s ills. It not only reduces the use of non-renewable resources and keeps materials out of landfills, it also helps lower carbon emissions, preserve ecosystems, reduce pollution and protect biodiversity.

While the benefits of a circular economy are clear, getting the full commitment of the entire building and construction sector requires a big change in mentality.

Instead of demolition, dynamite, and wrecking balls, we need a deconstruction value chain that uses recycled raw materials to create better products, takes back waste at the end of a product’s lifecycle, and is always looking for new ways to recycle demolition waste.

To illustrate what such a value chain looks like in practice, let’s use the example of Mineral Wool. At Knauf Insulation, we aim to manufacture our Rock Mineral Wool using more than 25% external recycled material, including waste from construction sites and ‘slag’ from the steel industry. We’re also working to manufacture our Glass Mineral Wool using over 65% recycled bottles and glass. On top of this, whenever possible, we feed our own production waste back into the manufacturing process, further closing the loop.

Our ‘circular economy friendly’ Mineral Wool is then sold and used in various construction projects, where it insulates a building throughout its lifespan. But, with change being the only constant, eventually that building will come down to make way for a new one to go up. When that happens, all the deconstruction waste – the masonry, wood, metal, gypsum boards, Mineral Wool, grit and everything else used in a building – is mixed together and, ideally, hauled off to a recycling plant. Unfortunately, in a mixed stream system such as this, only some materials, mainly metal and grit, can actually be recycled. The other materials end up contaminated and dumped in the landfill.

Taking the lead  

What companies like Knauf Insulation are working towards is a system where deconstruction waste is separated on site, with each material type being sent to a dedicated recycling centre. But this requires that deconstruction companies, authorities and waste collectors first be trained on how to get and preserve the material. It also requires uniform regulation across all European Union Member States mandating better separation of deconstruction waste at the source.

Instead of waiting for others to act, industry needs to take the lead to advance the recycling of deconstruction waste now. In Knauf Insulation, we have made ‘delivering a circular economy’ one of our long-term sustainability goals. To do so, we’ve set key quantified commitments, including sending zero waste to landfill, using resources that have a minimal environmental impact and reducing the environmental footprint of our packaging.

We’re already well on our way towards achieving many of these targets and are continuously striving for further change. Our RESULATION service, which takes back off-cuts and waste Mineral Wool from demolition and construction sites and recycles it at our plants, is a perfect example of this. In Germany, we provide our customers with RESULATION big bags to collect onsite scrap Mineral Wool. We then collect the bags, with the Rock Mineral Wool residue fed back into the manufacturing process and Glass Mineral Wool transformed into ceiling tiles.

We also recently opened a new RESULATION recycling plant in Belgium, giving our customers an opportunity to send Mineral Wool scrap – produced by us or by our competitors – for recycling rather than to landfill. The facility is specifically designed to transform scrap Glass Mineral Wool into the glass cullet required to manufacture new insulation solutions. By doing so, we’re taking old insulation that has been saving energy and emissions for many years and transforming into new Mineral Wool for a second energy-saving lifecycle.

This is just an example of what we’re doing at Knauf Insulation to help move the circular economy forward. But we can’t do it alone. Creating a truly circular economy requires the active participation of the entire building and construction sector. There’s simply no way around it, for the sake of our future, everyone needs to do their part.