The global population is set to reach 8 billion people within the next decade. That means the demand for housing has never been greater than right now. At the same time, the construction sector is a major polluter globally. It consumes around 40% of our annual spend of raw materials and over a quarter of our global energy consumption.
So the question is; How do we build the homes, cities and infrastructure our future needs, without destroying that same future?
The most common building materials today are cement, steel, aluminium and plastic. The production of each of these materials pose their own benefits and problems. Common for all of them is that they are a critical source of greenhouse gas emissions at the moment.
The good news is that most construction materials are highly recyclable. Cement from a demolished building can be recycled to make new cement constructions. Steel and other metals can be melted down and reforged into new metal constructions. The same goes for plastics. The problem is that it requires a lot of energy to recycle these materials. So even though building materials are recycled they still have an extensive environmental footprint.
The main problem today is that buildings are often demolished without value recovery leading to construction waste. Over a third of the EU’s total waste production comes from the building sector.
There is another way
The Circular Economy Alliance is challenging the construction industry to rethink how they use and reuse resources. Can we make better use of existing buildings? Can we repair or repurpose buildings instead of demolishing them? Can we design more resource-efficient or waste-free buildings? Can we develop sustainable construction materials?
Some metals, like aluminium, are more energy-efficient to recycle than e.g. steel. However, steel constructions are sturdier than aluminium, so these might be preferable to prolong the lifetime of a building. Developers, contractors, public and private institutions will have to consider the long term strategy for the developments entire lifetime already when selecting materials.
Innovative building materials
To achieve complete climate neutrality by 2050, the construction section will need innovative new materials that do more than reduce pollution. E.g., salvaging plastic waste from landfills, ocean pollution, etc., and recycling it as building elements, have the potential to have a net positive environmental footprint.
Innovating modular construction elements and designing buildings for reassembly, may eliminate the need to demolish buildings completely. If buildings can be taken apart, relocated, reassembled and rearranged, we will move a lot closer to a no-waste construction sector. These innovations will have the added financial benefits of being faster to build and more flexible.
The construction sector of the future needs to become a regenerative industry. One that relies on salvaging waste products and turning them into homes, workplaces and public buildings. It cannot continue to be a source of pollution digging raw materials from mines and quarries and leaving it as demolition waste decades later.
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