Sustainability in Construction – The Climate Change Challenge and a Circular Economy

The Green Construction Board has set UK construction firms a target of a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2025

And the EC has set member states a target of a 70% recycling of construction waste by 2020

November 23rd 2016

In a recent article, we looked at a number of localised renewable energy schemes, taking as our cue the slogan of “thinking globally, acting locally.” In this article we look at sustainability in the construction industry, where action requires not only local partnerships but also collaborations and initiatives that can cut across national boundaries as well as industries. A number of events have been held this year which have highlighted the need for cooperation in tackling the dual challenge of climate change and of managing resources in construction.

The Construction Climate Challenge: Reducing carbon in infrastructure construction

Companies working in the UK construction industry came together this month for a seminar titled Reducing Carbon in Infrastructure Construction. The seminar was held in Birmingham on November 10th and was hosted by Volvo Construction Equipment with support from the Green Construction Board as part of its ‘Construction Climate Challenge.’ The Green Construction Board was set up by the UK Government to provide leadership to the construction industry on reducing carbon emissions and to promote the use of low-carbon growth opportunities. The Board also has a role in monitoring the implementation of the Government’s ‘Low Carbon Construction Action Plan.’

The Climate Change Act of 2008 set an industry target of a 35% reduction in carbon emissions by 2025 and an 80% reduction by 2050. In 2013, however, the Green Construction Board published an industrial strategy for construction titled Construction 2025 which sets out the more ambitious target of a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. To help the industry meet this challenge, the Board launched a new standard for carbon reduction in May 2016, which is designed to encourage “a consistent approach to the management of carbon by all involved in infrastructure.”

This month’s seminar was an opportunity for construction companies to share best practice in reducing carbon and meeting the targets of the Construction Climate Challenge. As reported by Agg-Net, the key message to emerge from the event was that “reducing carbon emissions in infrastructure construction does not necessarily mean higher costs.” Other themes to emerge were the need to encourage collaboration, the need to adopt change, and to convince the industry of the cost-saving potential of such change. About a hundred business leaders from major infrastructure projects attended the event, as well as research bodies and government agencies. The seminar covered a wide range of topics, including the challenges of reducing carbon in major infrastructure projects; guidance on how to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint; tools to measure carbon reduction; and how new technology and low-carbon materials can help deliver substantial carbon reductions, while at the same time reducing costs and delivering higher performance.

The seminar was introduced by the Vice-President of Volvo Construction Equipment, Bill Law, who said “sustainability is too big an issue to be dealt with through the resources of one company alone.” The company’s Director of Emerging Technologies, Jenny Elfsberg, said that Volvo Construction Equipment had been developing engines that operate with alternative renewable fuels including HVO, methane and even electricity. “Our preferred choice is HVO,” she said, “a high-performing oil made from vegetable oils and fats that is also a carbon-neutral solution.” The company showcased a number of its projects at its ‘Xploration Forum’ held in Sweden in September, including the Electric Site Project, which aims to transform the quarrying and aggregates industry “by reducing carbon emissions by up to 95% and the total cost of ownership by up to 25%.”

The closing speech came from Andy Mitchell from the Thames Tideway Tunnel project, who reiterated the message that lower carbon means lower cost and said that, with collaboration, the industry might succeed in meeting its targets.

The latest news on the ‘Construction Climate Challenge’ is displayed on its Facebook page.

A Circular Economy in Construction: the European Dimension

To tackle the challenge of sustainability with regard to resources, the European Commission has been promoting the idea of a circular economy, in which one industry’s waste can be turned into another industry’s raw materials. As part of the transition to a circular economy, the EC Waste Framework Directive stipulates that member states “shall take the necessary measures designed to achieve that by 2020 a minimum of 70% (by weight) of non-hazardous construction and demolition waste shall be prepared for re-use, recycled or undergo other material recovery.” [1] To further stimulate the transition, the EC adopted a Circular Economy Package in December 2015 which includes not only revised legislative proposals on waste but also measures to promote re-use and recycling across industries, such as technological investment and training courses. [2]

The move to a circular economy is supported by EQAR, the European Quality Association for Recycling, which was founded in 2006 as an umbrella organisation for construction material recycling and to represent the interests of the recycling sector. EQAR held a congress in September, where companies and organisations from the waste management industry came together from various EU member states to discuss progress in the establishment of a circular economy in construction across Europe. EQAR says that more than a billion tonnes of mineral-based construction and demolition waste is produced in Europe each year, and a circular economy in construction is therefore of critical importance for a resource-efficient Europe.

A review of the congress by Agg-Net says that some EU member states had not reached the targets set by the Waste Framework Directive, whilst the level of construction and demolition waste recycling varies dramatically across Europe. The EC says the level ranges from less than 10% to over 90%. [3] This has led EQAR to reiterate a call made at a previous congress for the improvement and unification of the framework conditions for construction material recycling:

“EQAR believes that by creating a single European market for recycled construction materials, utilization rates could be markedly increased. EQAR says regional demand for recycled construction materials is frequently subject to fluctuations which could be compensated for by exchanging recycled products across Europe’s internal borders. EQAR is therefore calling for standardization of environmental compatibility classes for aggregates, to bring about a harmonized product status for recycled construction materials on a European level. To help increase acceptance of recycled construction materials, in 2013 EQAR adopted a European quality assurance system for recycled construction materials, which aims to ensure uniformity of quality through independent external monitoring of recycled products.”

Speaking at the September event, Vincent Basuya, EC Policy Officer for Sustainable Construction, provided an update on the progress of the Construction & Demolition Waste Management Protocol, which is expected to contain numerous examples of best practice in construction and demolition waste recycling and to serve as an essential guide for action in EU member states. However, EQAR is concerned over the lack of urgency in the standardisation of quality-assured recycled construction materials, which has prompted the organisation to reiterate its call for EU-wide regulation in this area, to run in parallel to the protocol. According to Agg-Net, so far only five EU countries have adopted their own end-of-waste criteria with varying levels of regulation.

A Circular Economy in Construction: the UK

The EC’s Circular Economy Package, published in December 2015, followed a series of consultations which asked member states for their views on the technical workings of existing waste legislation; the functioning of waste markets in the EU; and measures that might be adopted to expedite the transition to a circular economy. In particular, member states were asked: “What are the most successful measures taken in your country, at national, regional, or local level, to facilitate the transition to a circular economy? (These can include legislative initiatives, financial instruments such as taxation, support programmes, awareness campaigns, public procurement, etc.). Are there any particular lessons learned from these measures, and could they in your view be usefully replicated in other countries or regions?”

The UK Government published two documents which set out its response to the consultations. In summary, it highlighted three measures which had been adopted in the UK and could be usefully replicated elsewhere in the EU: the facilitation of resource-efficient business models (through resource-efficient production techniques and technological solutions, for example); the adoption of a systems approach that makes better use of data; and the promotion of voluntary agreements. It provided a number of examples of government actions, including the Construction 2025 industrial strategy, and government funding of the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), which helps businesses, local authorities and households to become more efficient in their use of resources.

Among its recommendations, the Government said that EU funded research, pilot projects and case studies had the potential to deliver practical solutions to increasing resource efficiency, and this research should be disseminated to a wider audience. It also argued that the EU should adopt “a holistic approach to developing the new circular economy package as a whole – the impact of waste prevention actions needs to be taken into account in considering the ‘waste part of the circle.'” A further recommendation was that “the EU should support the establishment of EU-wide networks to promote industrial symbiosis” (i.e. the process whereby one industry’s waste becomes another industry’s raw materials):

“The network should engage traditionally separate industries and other organisations to foster innovative strategies for more sustainable resource use (including materials, energy, water, assets, expertise, logistics, etc.). Through the network, business opportunities would be identified leading to mutually advantageous transactions for innovative sourcing of required inputs and value-added destinations for non-product outputs. Organisations would also benefit from being exposed to best practice and knowledge transfer, resulting in cultural and process changes. An industrial symbiosis methodology has been pioneered in the UK and we would be happy to share our experiences.”

In short, the views of the UK Government in 2015 appear to be in harmony with the views of EQAR on the need for a single European market for recycled construction materials. Given the referendum result, it is also interesting to note that another recommendation was that the EU “should maintain the integrity of the EU single market and support measures to deliver growth and innovation, avoiding and where appropriate reducing burdens on business, especially SMEs.”

‘Carbon-negative’ manufacturing and recycled aggregates

In February this year, one company that specialises in aggregate production in the UK said it was uniquely placed to benefit from the EC Circular Economy Package, having obtained planning permission to build a third ‘carbon-negative’ manufacturing facility on the outskirts of Leeds. Carbon8 Aggregates have a facility at Brandon in Suffolk and their second plant was built at Avonmouth in 2015. The £4m. plant at Leeds is the result of a joint planning application with local independent block makers Thomas Armstrong who will build a new plant alongside Carbon8’s aggregate operation. Thomas Armstrong, trading as Stocks Blocks, will use the aggregate in the production of construction blocks.

Carbon8 says that the new facility will be capable of transforming 50,000 tonnes of waste flue-gas treatment residues, derived from energy-from-waste facilities, into approximately 110,000 tonnes of lightweight secondary aggregate. Stephen Roscoe, Carbon8’s technical director, said: “We are already in advanced discussions regarding contracts for more than 50% of the residues into Leeds and, due to the imminent closure of coal-fired power stations in the region, we’re also seeing strong demand from block makers for our aggregate, which will replace the power station ash frequently used in block manufacture.”

Carbon8 use an award-winning patented process known as accelerated carbonation technology (ACT) to manufacture a high-quality lightweight aggregate called C8Aggregate (C8A). The company says that by permanently capturing more carbon dioxide than is generated during its manufacture, the ACT process means C8A is the world’s first truly carbon-negative aggregate. The three sites will have a combined capacity of more than 130,000 tonnes of flue-gas treatment residues a year, and the Leeds site is said to mark a significant step in Carbon8’s strategy to develop five sites nationally with a total capacity of 250,000 tonnes a year. Work on the Leeds site was expected to begin in August this year. [4]

Also in the UK, the company Powerday opened a new materials recovery facility in December 2015 which the company says will be able to process 330,000 tonnes of waste a year from the London area. Located in Enfield on the site of a former waste transfer station operated by the company, the facility will process construction and commercial waste, “producing high-quality recycled materials and renewable fuel.” Mick Crossan from Powerday said the facility “provides greater options for clients and a further high-volume production site for refuse derived fuels (RDF), making it an attractive collection point for RDF collectors currently exporting to Europe and Scandinavia via the London ports.” [5]

Also in London, the company Brett Aggregates is making a contribution to the development of the circular economy through its involvement in the restoration and regeneration of Battersea Power Station. The Grade II* listed building and its surroundings are being transformed into a new residential area comprising over two million square feet of offices, apartments, retail and leisure outlets, cultural venues, and eighteen acres of public space. An article by Agg-Net says that the company is working in close collaboration with the McGee Group, “one of the contractors on the Battersea Power Station site given the task to excavate 400,000 tonnes of materials and to build a huge basement area.” All excavated material is transported by McGee to a Brett facility in West London, “where it is crushed and screened to produce recycled aggregates ready for use in the redevelopment project. The two companies are working together to ensure that this process is achieved with maximum efficiency and with as few truck movements as possible in order to reduce their carbon footprint.”

Finally, a major exhibition for the waste management and recycling industry was held at the NEC in Birmingham in September. ‘Recycling and Waste Management’ is an annual event organised in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Waste Management which the organisers say attracts more than 500 exhibitors and 13,000 visitors. The event showcases the latest innovations in recycling and reprocessing technology, including the recycling of electrical and electronic waste, as well as developments in ‘Energy from Waste’ technologies such as anaerobic digestion and biomass. The event also showcases the latest machines for sorting and separation, size reduction, and the movement of materials within materials recovery facilities, waste transfer stations and other recycling facilities. The event was held in parallel with three other major exhibitions, also at the NEC: The Energy Event, The Renewables Event and The Water Event. For the latest news on this annual event, see the RWM Exhibition website.


[1] For details of the EC Waste Framework Directive as regards construction and demolition waste, see this article on the EC website.

[2] For details of the EC Circular Economy Package, see the EC Press Release, published in December 2015.

[3] Ibid (as note 1).

[4] An article by Agg-Net summarises a report by Off-Highway Research, a provider of market intelligence for the construction equipment sector, titled The Impact of Brexit on the UK Construction Equipment Industry. The summary says: “The unexpected result of the June referendum has already had a number of effects on the industry, including lower than expected equipment sales and price pressure on imports due to the depreciation in the pound.” There is now a large question mark over the impact of a UK withdrawal and the potential loss of EU incentives such as the EC Circular Economy Package.

[5] The family-run firm was also ordered to pay a fine this year of £1.2m. for two historical waste offences, dating from 2010, following an investigation and prosecution by the Environment Agency. See the article on


Photograph: Battersea Power Station, ‘Spot the Difference’ © Copyright Paul Farmer and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. This photograph was taken in 2014 and the caption says: “The four chimneys of Battersea Power Station are going to be dismantled and rebuilt.” A shared description says: “Battersea Power Station is a former power station on the south bank of the Thames. Battersea A was opened in 1935 and Battersea B in 1955. The power station stopped generating in 1983. It is a Grade II* listed building and an iconic landmark. Many plans for its redevelopment have come and gone.” However, the current plans are in progress: work began in 2013 and Phase 1 of the project is scheduled for completion in 2017. The building and its surroundings are in the process of being transformed into a new residential area comprising over two million square feet of offices, apartments, retail and leisure outlets, cultural venues, and eighteen acres of public space. All excavated material from the site is being recycled into aggregates ready for use in the redevelopment project.