Circularity in building and construction products – Understanding the new foundations of sustainability

Magdalini Psarra
Magdalini Psarra
August 7, 2020

Future sustainability will depend on the responsible use of natural resources using the foundations of circularity at each stage of a building’s lifecycle.

City built from leaves with recycling icon

Human activity has a lasting impact on the environment and climate. As more people move to cities looking for economic prosperity, there is increasing pressure on local and national governments to provide healthy places to live, work, learn and recuperate for their citizens. Establishing a framework that accommodates both the rising rates of urbanisation and ensures the future sustainability of the population requires a circular economy that extends beyond the operational stage of buildings.

A report from McKinsey in 2012 estimated that by 2025 the world would need one billion additional houses. By 2050, Europe’s level of urbanisation will reach approximately 83 percent. The choices we make to accommodate this growth will have an impact on future generations and the environment. The vast number of resources and energy required to support these rates of growth will increase emissions and by extension, negatively influence our fragile world.

Resource consumption from building and construction products

By nature, the building and construction industry are resource-intensive. It requires the extraction, manufacturing and erection of specialised materials and products sourced from natural resources. According to the OECD, construction materials and the building sector are responsible for more than one-third of all resource consumption in the world annually. Additionally, the manufacturing of building materials uses about 30 percent of the global energy supply. Buildings also generate excessive levels of waste, with 40 percent of urban solid waste originating from the world’s buildings. Considering that only 20-30 percent of this waste goes through a recycling process, the standard approach is no longer sustainable.  

Maintaining the levels of growth required while ensuring future sustainability necessitates a new resource consumption model. The concept of circularity is the approach that ensures the responsible management of materials we need today.

Moving from a linear to a circular model in buildings and construction products

The traditional take-make-use-dispose approach to resource consumption no longer works. Not only does it put a massive strain on the natural environment, it also creates unsustainable levels of emissions and waste every day. Adopting a circular approach to resource consumption imitates the processes of natural systems. In the natural environment, everything returns to nature and is absorbed by the environment. A circular approach to materials management follows the same philosophy, working to reduce waste and maximise consumption by designing out start or end-points in the cycle.

(O106) Inline Page Link: Circularity in the Construction industry: Good intentions aren’t enough(2)

The European Commission includes the building sector as one of the main focus areas for the recently released New Circular Economy Action Plan, which is part of the European Green Deal. Moving to a circular economy in the building and construction sector provides additional benefits, but requires us to take a holistic approach to the entire lifecycle of buildings. This includes the sub-processes and extensive supply chains that support the sector.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation advises that a circular economy relies on three main principles.

These are:

  • Designing out waste and pollution from systems, processes and products.
  • Extending the useful life of products, components and materials.
  • Working to regenerate natural systems.

In the context of buildings, circularity requires a holistic assessment of the products and services selected for renovation or a new construction project. Here is how these principles apply to the building and construction sector.

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Our products can contain up to

recycled material

In 2019 we recycled

tonnes of stone wool

Designing out waste and pollution in the built environment

To design out waste and pollution, it could require a change in the material sourcing criteria and promotion of products with a lower environmental footprint. By making sure the highest recycled content available is selected, the use of primary resources can be minimised, using instead secondary materials.

It can also depend on the reusability of the product and its recycling potential, or even better, how it is upcycled into materials and products with a higher value. Designers should also avoid the use of products that contain any harmful substances or causes significant pollution to the environment during the manufacturing process.

Modular, flexible products that are easy to assemble or disassemble can help reduce waste, while reusability and recycling potential should also factor into the process. Designers should also consider the ability to repurpose materials for second or third use, extending their useful life and reducing waste.

Keeping construction products and materials in use and at their highest value

Selecting products and materials that perform for longer and do not degrade over time is another aspect of circularity in the building sector. Specifically, opting to use materials that reduce the requirement for replacement and repair will enable a more circular process and reduce the need for primary materials, while also helping to minimise waste. Circularity aims at reducing the need to remanufacture materials and to cut down on the emissions required for fabricating new products.

(O106) Inline Page Link: Life Cycle Assessment in a nutshell(2)

Regenerating natural systems in the built environment

Working to regenerate natural systems requires adopting clean and renewable energy sources for the design. Building processes should also consider returning materials to the natural environment (such as biodegradable products) or using energy generation technologies (including geothermal heat) that limit the depletion of natural sources and energy. Lastly, focusing on bioclimatic and biophilic design practices can also help bring building occupants closer to the natural environment and provide a healthier indoor climate.

Establishing a circular model for the building and construction sector at Rockfon

At Rockfon, we take pride in offering circular solutions to the market by using stone wool and metal grid products that benefit from a closed-loop recycling process. If we consider the definition provided by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Rockfon products fulfil all three principles of circularity. By upcycling waste from other industries, we can prevent it from ending up in landfills. Currently, we have increased our recycled content percentage, reaching on average between 32-43 percent, and at times 75 percent. We achieved this by upcycling waste from other industries, and with our stone wool waste recycling processes. We presently offer a recycling service in many European countries, including Denmark, France, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden.. By forming partnerships with waste handling companies, we can offer our customers a recycling service for renovation or new construction projects.

(O106) Inline Page Link: Achieving a low carbon society(2)

Investing in new technologies and using renewable electricity sources is another way we continue to try to reduce the environmental impact of the manufacturing processes for our products. Finally, we provide environmentally friendly solutions that deliver durable performance for longer – solutions that are easy to dismantle from the building and that are suitable for a second or third life, before beingrecycled to become new Rockfon products.

Realising the benefits of stone wool in acoustic solutions can help companies establish circularity in their resource consumption and materials management processes, making the future more sustainable.

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