construction & circular economy

Prospects for making construction more circular

In March 2019, the European Commission completed the first Circular Economy Action Plan dating from 2015. Widely hailed as a success, it calls for a successor to pick up the baton soon followed.

On 11 March 2020, Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius presented the new Action Plan as the latest European Green Deal initiative. It hinges on two main pillars. The first one focuses on making products more sustainable while the other aims at realising “less waste, more value”. These pillars are supplemented with sectoral measures for seven “key product value chains”. In this insight, we will focus on how the Commission wants to green one of the so-called ‘harder-to-abate’ sectors, construction.

constructing a sustainable built environment

The bold proposals testify to the expected benefits from a greener construction sector. By the end of 2020, the Commission will launch a “Strategy for a Sustainable Built Environment”. The latter could integrate life cycle assessments into public procurement or raise the recovery targets for construction and demolition waste.

At a later stage, the Commission may revise the Construction Product Regulation (CPR). The change could introduce recycled content requirements for several construction products. However, the Action Plan did not speculate on which products these requirements would apply.

There are many vested interests in how such a CPR revision could play out. The CPR already covers over thirty categories of construction products consisting of materials such as wood, cement or steel. And European standardisation offices prefer not to change the CPR for the moment. Striking a deal will prove thus tricky.

Up to now, EU policies towards the harder-to-abate building sector have often given an impression of negative bias or excessive burdens without sufficient prospects. Meanwhile, the new measures proposed for the construction sector seem to do better in that regard. They appear like a good starting point for a constructive dialogue between the Commission and industry.

The measures foreseen by the Circular Economy Action Plan for the construction sector demonstrate that the European Green Deal is not just about a lofty destination but also a precise itinerary.

tackling construction from all angles

Next to the sector-specific measures described above, the Circular Economy Action Plan also targets the buildings sector through its two central pillars. Cement, for example, will be among the products for which sustainability criteria will be developed. More careful is the suggestion of combining the introduction of circular practices with the review of the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED). Today, the IED regulates pollutant emissions from industrial production (including steel or cement). It also covers waste generation and material use, but it does not require taking into account circular economy needs. Requiring more circular practices would mean involving circular economy experts more systematically or easing the approval of innovations that lead to higher levels of environmental protection.

Moreover, while not explicitly acknowledged, the proposals on waste could prove the solution to the issues faced by the waste-intensive building sector. The industry has already been working on reusing waste in construction and giving its debris a second life. Several obstacles have, however, hampered this effort.

  • First and foremost, confidence in the structural qualities of recycled building materials lacks due to a shortage of information about their contents. The Action Plan thus proposes to make the information required about recycled materials more detailed.
  • Second, there are lingering concerns about past – and possibly current – use of polluted materials in buildings. When present, these drive demolition costs up, making it economically unattractive to recycle them. The plan thus proposes to boost research to find cost-effective ways to sort and remove hazardous components.

As such, these general proposals will apply to all sectors, but they have the potential to boost the construction sector significantly.

setting out an itinerary

The Commission’s earlier climate initiatives – the European Climate Law and the Industrial Strategy – prompted tepid reviews from stakeholders and analysts. By contrast, the positive feedback on the Circular Economy Action Plan must have come as a relief to the Von der Leyen Commission. The measures foreseen by the Circular Economy Action Plan for the construction sector demonstrate that the European Green Deal is not just about a lofty destination but also a precise itinerary.

The foreseen CPR revision will, however, trigger much debate, which also signals the relevance and ambition of the Commission plans. Should implementation be in line with initial intentions, it will be a testimony of the Commission’s political acumen and maturity.


  • 2021: Strategy for a Sustainable Built Environment.
  • As of 2021: IED review.

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