European Commission, Environment DG

Quantifying the benefits of sustainable waste management

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Source: European Commission, Environment DG

Reuse, recycling and converting waste into energy are well known environmental principles, but quantitative data are needed to support their application. A recent study investigates the use of these strategies, taking the demolition of an end-of-life house as an example. It compares their effectiveness to straightforward disposal of materials.

Dealing with waste effectively is important, not only because it reduces greenhouse gas emissions, but also because it reduces the use of further resources. Every year, some 2 billion tonnes of waste are produced within the EU. Recycling and reuse of resources forms a large part of European waste policy1.

The building sector is responsible for 10 per cent of GDP in western economies but uses more raw materials than any other industry. In addition, buildings leave behind a large amount of materials once they have reached the end of their life. It has therefore been highlighted as a sector with plenty of opportunities for smart waste management.

In order to compare standard waste disposal to alternative means of dealing with waste, the study used an objective tool to quantify the resource savings in a number of scenarios. Taking a typical Belgian terraced house as its subject, it split the materials used into six types: stony materials, such as tiles and bricks, wood, metals, glass, synthetic materials and any remaining materials.

The researchers then calculated the virgin natural resource savings for each of these materials when they were recovered using various strategies. The savings were quantified in terms of energy - through, for example, avoided energy use from avoiding transportation to landfill or gained energy via reuse of materials as fuel. Examples of recovery strategies include the re-use of materials, recycling materials, including recycling wood into wood chips to be used as a source of energy and incineration. The energy required for demolition and transport was included in the calculations.

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