The market for construction products offers a substantial opportunity for circular economy business models. Rather than being manufactured from virgin materials, many construction products – such as building and insulation materials – can be recovered and recycled from construction and demolition waste, or can be manufactured from other waste streams. Often, eco-innovative companies can uncover new and more environmentally friendly opportunities by using recovered or recycled materials in creative ways.
Reducing construction waste
The European Commission recognised in its December 2015 Circular Economy Package that the recycling of construction and demolition waste should be encouraged. The Commission noted that, at 500 million tonnes per year, waste from the construction sector is one of the European Union's highest volume waste types.
Under the Waste Framework Directive (2008/98/EC), the EU already has a requirement for 70% of non-hazardous construction and demolition waste to be reused or recycled, with the target to be met by 2020. To build on this, the Circular Economy Package said that further measures would be taken to ensure recovery of valuable resources and adequate waste management in the construction and demolition sector. To this end, pre-demolition guidelines would be developed to boost high-value recycling in the sector. Specific areas in which further work will take place include the promotion of better sorting systems for construction waste and voluntary recycling protocols for different waste streams targeted at the construction sector.
The industry federation Construction Products Europe supported the Commission's approach. It also underlined that other elements will need to be further developed including a single harmonised life-cycle methodology for construction products, sharing of best practices, better data and eco-design measures to encourage construction products that are better performing and more easily recyclable.
Circular construction pioneers
In terms of innovative construction products that use waste from other sectors as their raw materials, a number of projects have already shown the way. Some of the most interesting developments include:
- GLASS Plus, a project that ran from 2010 to 2011, showed that glass from cathode ray tubes from old-style televisions could be recycled into fine stoneware tiles. The benefits from such a circular economy approach include both diversion of waste from landfill or other disposal method, and the reduction in demand for virgin materials – in this case, feldspar and zirconium, mined minerals used in the production and glazing of tiles. More information: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/eco-innovation/projects/en/projects/glass-plus.
- GREEN-CAST, which ran from 2011 to 2014, made lightweight construction blocks, similar to breezeblocks, from fly ash obtained as a by-product from thermal power plants. The project showed that Green Cast blocks were as effective as standard “autoclaved cellular concrete” blocks, but could be produced using much less energy, and at slightly lower cost. The reuse of fly ash diverts it from landfill. The consortium behind the project, led by Spanish company ACCIONA, is working on the scaling up of Green Cast into full commercial use. More information: http://greencast-project.eu.
- InsulaTFH, which ran from 2009 to 2011, experimented with recycled materials in the manufacture of pre-insulated timber-frame wall panels. The project, led by Irish company Cygnum Timber Frame Ltd, used cellulose derived from waste paper to fill its panels. Cellulose offers better insulating properties that some other materials, and has other benefits, such as technical advantages in the manufacturing process. Cygnum is now marketing the panels containing cellulose insulation. More information: http://www.insulatfh.eu.
- The NUMIX project sought to produce a material from mixed plastic waste that could be used in the manufacture of lightweight concrete and mortar. The project effectively showed that plastic waste could be reused in this way, with significantly reduced water use in the production of lightweight concrete compared to standard raw materials. One of the project partners went on to sell the NUMIX product in its home market of Italy. The project ran from 2009 to 2012. More information: http://www.innovationseeds.eu/Virtual_Library/Results/NUMIX.kl.
- The TAIMEE project, which started in 2012 and closed in August 2015, sought to capitalise on the thermal and acoustic insulation properties of leather. The project took waste from the production of leather goods to apply it in noise-reducing panels that can be used alongside roads or in other construction applications. The project was also able to develop a bio-based resin to bind the leather together. A life-cycle analysis of the leather-based panels showed significant energy and materials savings compared to more conventional alternatives. The project partners hope that there is a bright future for the TAIMEE product, which should have numerous applications. More information: http://taimee-project.eu. A project video is available at https://vimeo.com/144114427.
All projects were supported by the EU's Eco-innovation initiative, which was part of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Programme and were funded under the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme, which ran until 2013 and was superseded by the COSME Programme for the Competitiveness of Enterprises and SMEs (https://ec.europa.eu/easme/en/cosme).