A video gone viral in the summer of 2021 showed the simultaneous demolition of 15 new and never-lived-in skyscrapers in the southern Chinese city of Kunming in just 45 seconds. Certainly, the frenzied pace of building, and demolition, in China's construction industry has contributed recently, in addition to the bursting of the real estate bubble in the People's Republic, to lowering the average lifespan of buildings around the world.

While it is true that, especially in Europe, there are century-old buildings still in use today, what is being built today has a much shorter life expectancy, sometimes – especially for commercial buildings – expiring in little more than a decade. And relatively little of what is demolished is then actually recovered, reused or recycled, even though the construction sector has the highest rate of virgin resource consumption in the world. In fact, it is estimated that construction globally uses about one-third of all raw materials extracted annually, while in Europe alone – according to the Circular Building Coalition's new report – the sector now consumes 1094 million tons of materials annually, generating 124 million tons of demolition waste.
In short, a colossal problem of both economic and environmental sustainability that the introduction of extended producer responsibility systems, accompanied by radical circular practices, could curb.

What is the product? Who is responsible for it?

Given the resource-intensive nature of construction, one might think that the sector was one of the first to be considered for the introduction of EPR schemes. In reality, it is among those furthest behind in this journey: the complexity of the supply chains and the products of this industry – the buildings themselves – has made a straightforward, linear approach to producer responsibility impossible. In practice, industry actors and experts are still debating two basic and indispensable questions to bring any EPR scheme to life: what is the product and who is responsible for it.

Ph Micah Williams (Unsplash)

“The definition of a product in construction depends on who is providing it: a contractor or supplier will think about components and materials, an architect or designer about the whole building,” Samy Kazemi, a built environment expert for the think-tank Circle Economy and among the authors of the aforementioned Circular Building Coalition report, explains to Renewable Matter. A paper by the UK's Construction Products Association (CPA) compares the construction industry to the automotive industry: size aside, both outputs are relatively durable, complex products composed of several components, some fixed and others more subject to wear and replacement.
The big difference, however, according to the paper's authors, lies in the respective supply chains of the two sectors: integrated and with only a few players in automotive, incredibly long and heterogeneous in the construction industry. It is the latter aspect, ultimately, that makes it difficult to determine who gets the role of “producer” in a possible EPR system for construction. According to Kazemi, the most pragmatic solution would be to hold construction and demolition companies responsible. “This is the easiest way,” she explains, “A component manufacturer generally does not have the proper logistics chain to dispose of and recycle demolition waste and is not on-site, while construction companies have the means and resources to do this more efficiently. “This is certainly true regarding buildings that have already been constructed,” retorts Carolina Montano Owen of the World Green Building Council.  “However, it is a different matter if we think about new projects: in this case holding component manufacturers responsible could give a boost to ecodesign, because it would become their primary interest to design for disassembly and reuse.”

The French example

The debate, in short, is far from over. But while experts and the European Commission itself have not yet established a line for the introduction of extended producer responsibility in construction, there are those who are forging ahead. France, again, has decided to lead the way, establishing with the Circular Economy Act of 2020 (Loi anti-gaspillage pour une économie circulaire) the obligation to set up an EPR scheme for actors in the industry.

The obligation, which was triggered on January 1, 2023, first required the definition of a precise list of affected products, which Ademe, the French ecological transition agency, divided into the two macro-categories of inert waste (concrete, bricks, glass) and non-inert non-hazardous waste (metal, wood, plastics and PVC, plaster, coatings, and others). Components and materials have thus been designated as the “products” of the EPR scheme, a choice that “seems quite natural, since ecodesign starts with the product itself,” comments for Renewable Matter the communications office of Valobat, one of the four eco-organizations authorized to act as the PRO (Product Responsibility Organization) for the construction sector in France.

Formed in 2021 at the initiative of 26 construction producers and distributors, Valobat currently counts more than 4,000 member companies and is the only one of the four organizations to deal with the full range of construction and demolition waste defined by French law. As with other supply chains, producers and distributors pay (as of May 2023) an eco-contribution to the organization, which is responsible for planning the network of collection, treatment, and eventual recycling of materials. “On the collection front,” Valobat representatives explain, “voluntary eco-points are and will continue being deployed in the territory to receive waste from small construction sites and direct collection is planned at construction sites that generate a significant amount of material. The waste will then be treated to be reincorporated into industrial processes as raw material for recycling. We have identified and entered into contracts with recycling players throughout the territory, favoring closed loops wherever possible, and for each product family, tenders have been issued to supply the French and European industry with raw materials.” Finally, looking at what is the main node for implementing a truly effective EPR system, namely the uptake of recycled materials by industry, Valobat plans to implement “an ambitious action plan to support the acceleration of reuse and second life of products.”