Coming full circle – improvements in sorting construction waste

2020-02-13 Matti Mikkelä

I first wrote for Circblog at the beginning of the Circwaste project a few years ago. Back then, I was fretting about the dysfunctional sorting of construction waste. Now, our three-year subproject is about to end, and it is time for a recap.

As climate change and other environmental threats loom over our minds, many of us would like to put our hands up in frustration over the slow pace of action and progress. Nevertheless, I see not only challenges but also the development we are all hoping for.

We developed the sorting of construction and demolition waste at nine worksites. As a result, the sites were able to sort 99% of their waste. Based on these experiences, I am sure that sorting waste is not a problem at all in the construction industry.

Sorting can be achieved as long as it is required by the client of the worksite. Another alternative is to set a waste reception price that encourages worksites to sort their waste. Sorting can also be made easier through waste consulting, signage indicating different waste types, various collection tools and cooperation. The important part is to give the worksites a tangible reason to sort their waste.

Measuring errors in recycling rates

It is almost certain that Finland will not reach the 70% recycling rate of construction waste required by the waste directive from the beginning of the year. However, we are headed in the right direction. At our last worksite, we were even able to exceed an 82% recycling rate.

It is important to understand that the 70% recycling rate required by the waste directive is not a very constructive indicator. The same level of sorting will not achieve the same rates at different worksites; the ability to reach a high rate often depends more on the quality and amount of waste than the sorting.

The following example provides a clearer picture of the difficulties of calculating the recycling rate. Packaging waste constitutes only a few per cent of all worksite waste. Therefore, recycling packaging waste does not play a huge role in increasing the recycling rate. What type of an indicator is needed, then, to encourage worksites to better sort and recycle even the smallest batches of waste?

Towards circular economy

In today’s hectic and short-sighted working life, a three-year subproject seems long. We get dissatisfied if the goals are not reached or if the practices do not take root as expected. At the same time, climate change is advancing, natural resources are depleting and the state of the environment is weakening.

However, if we look back, we can see how quickly the waste industry is actually progressing. Five years ago, most of the waste was deposited at landfills, whereas now, the only construction waste seen at landfills is asbestos and insulation wool. We are able to use various material streams more efficiently. We are facing increasingly stricter recycling requirements. We are constantly seeing new materials and circular economy concepts on the market. Some of them prove impracticable, but some of them are here to stay.

There is still much to be done, and many development processes are still only taking their first steps. We need more suppliers and users of recycled materials as well as forward-thinking client practices. We need high-quality information, steering methods encouraging people towards circular economy and, above all else, cooperation.

Let’s continue on this promising path!

Project manager Matti Mikkelä, Puhas Oy

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