Construction and demolition waste (CDW) is arguably a sleeping giant when it comes to sustainable waste management. According to available estimates, the construction sector is responsible for 35.9% of EU’s total waste generation and for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the order of 5 to 12% of national GHG emissions accounts. Much remains to be done across Europe to boost re-use and recycling rates of this particularly significant waste stream.

In line with the waste prevention obligations under Article 9 of the Waste Framework Directive (WFD), the European Commission recently committed to take further steps to improve resource efficiency in the construction sector in the context of the European Green Deal. In parallel, many local and regional policymakers, like the Brussels Capital Region, have already started to put in place ambitious projects seeking to apply circular economy principles to construction sites.

From linear to circular: a great challenge for the European construction sector

Storage room with construction material for buildingsThe new Circular Economy Action Plan unveiled by the EU executive in spring 2020 recognised that better results in terms of material efficiency and reduced climate impacts can be achieved by promoting circularity principles throughout the lifecycle of buildings. Therefore, it announced that a new ‘Strategy for the Sustainable Built Environment’ would be adopted with the view to ensure coherence between CDW management and policy areas such as climate, energy and resource efficiency, digitalisation and skills.

The policy options that the Commission seems to be willing to explore for this Strategy are many. Among others, they encompass the revision of the Construction Product Regulation (CPR) to improve the sustainability performance of construction products, including through the introduction of recycled content requirements, and a possible revision of material recovery targets set by EU legislation for CDW and its material-specific fractions. In the words of Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner for the Internal Market, the new Strategy should see the light in 2022 at the latest, put forward a ‘holistic approach’ for the built environment and supplement actions already taken with the Renovation Wave and the Recovery and Resilience Facility to create a more energy and resource efficient building sector.

‘Be Circular Be Brussels’: instilling circularity in the construction sector at the heart of Europe

Empty wheelbarrow in front of a brick wallThe initiative ‘Be Circular Be Brussels’ (BCBB) was launched following the adoption of the circular economy programme of the Brussels Capital Region in 2016 to make sure that environmental protection and resource efficiency translate into concrete economic and employment opportunities for businesses and citizens of Brussels. The BCBB targets four priority areas: food, the so-called ‘3R’, i.e. reuse, repair and recycling, new business models and the construction sector. With regard to the latter, since the inception of the initiative, the Regional Government launched yearly calls for proposals open to the participation of public and private stakeholders putting forward projects to avoid demolitions and, whenever possible, to promote the re-use of construction materials.

RREUSE, the Brussels-based international network of social enterprises active in re-use, repair and recycling, identified BCBB as a good practice in the context of the 2LIFES project. Kelly Piron, Communication and Advocacy Officer at RREUSE, commented: ‘In a bid to transition from a linear to a circular economy, the BCBB initiative provides strong incentives for many private and public actors to re-use more, avoid extraction of new natural resources and create more local jobs. Re-using existing local materials, transforming them to extend their lifespan, and pooling resources are all practices that will help the construction sector achieve a circular dynamic. Other local and regional policymakers could draw inspiration from this practice and adapt it to the particularities of the building companies operating in their territories’.

‘BCBB Circular Building Sites’: more than financial incentives for a circular building sector

Between 2016 and 2020, thirty-six construction enterprises have been granted direct financial support (≈ €27.000/project) via the BCBB ‘Circular Building Sites’ yearly calls for projects. Almost 1 million EUR (963.716,50 EUR) has been assigned in the form of subsidies to implement circular economy principles at construction sites. Besides support to grantees, BCBB also promotes the dissemination of knowledge and information to the general public in the form of project results and manuals to extend the lifespan of construction products.

One notable example in this regard is the REUSE.brussels portal, managed in partnership with CDR-BRC,  the Brussels reference centre for professions in the building sector. Asked about the achievements of the BCBB initiative and its contribution to more resource efficient construction sites in Brussels, Yannick d’Otreppe, Sustainable Buildings Project Officer at Brussels Environment declared: ‘With BCBB Circular Building Sites, we – the Brussels-Capital Region – gained a lot of knowledge to help the sector change and adapt to the circular economy and we are now able to showcase many good examples in this respect. What is really great is to witness grantees transferring their circular good practices to their activities outside the programme. Companies of all sizes are doing it and that’s undoubtedly a good sign. We can see that change is coming!’. At the end of 2021 Brussels Environment will launch a new programme inspired by ‘BCBB Circular Building Sites’ and by a pre-existing call for projects named ‘Exemplary Buildings’.

The purpose of this future programme will be to support and accompany construction enterprises, designers and building owners conducting circular building renovations in line with the principles of the Renovation Wave launched by the European Commission in Autumn 2020.

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Credits: Photos by «©Brussels Environment – photo: Bernard Boccara»