Government looking to boost construction waste recycling

Jõelähtme Landfill.
Jõelähtme Landfill. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The government's plans for the next four years include making it easier to recycle construction and demolition waste in Estonia. Environmental experts find the plan has several shortcomings.

Construction and demolition waste makes up nearly a fifth of total waste volume in Estonia. Sigrid Soomlais, head of the environmental management department of the Ministry of Climate, said that Estonia produced 1.2 million tons of construction and demolition waste the year before last.

"We have a pretty good construction and demolition waste recycling rate – around 90 percent. But if we take a closer look, we see that a lot of it is actually backfilling. Refilling quarries or using the material in road construction," Soomlais explained. "That is not what we could call a high-value activity in circular economy terms."

Soomlais said that less than one quarter of construction and demolition waste is recycled as new materials, giving as the reason the fact that everything gets lumped in together at construction and demo sites.

"Glass, timber and concrete are not separated on site. It would make it much easier to process them if materials were sorted on location," Soomlais said.

"The other thing I would point out is designing buildings in a way that would allow their smart disassembly. Making sure the materials are easily accessible for recycling, whether retaining their function, such as in the case of windows, or crushing concrete and bricks."

Soomlais added that local governments could issue owners of buildings authorization for use only if waste has been properly handled.

Harri Moora, senior expert at the Tallinn office of the Stockholm Environmental Institute (SEI), said that construction waste handling is complicated and the quality of materials must be subject to thorough checks.

"We cannot just put random material created at construction site back into buildings. There are myriad regulations, norms and certificates involved. The public sector should clearly take the reins here and start working on legal grounds," Moora suggested.

Moora said that because burying waste in quarries or holes in the ground is cheap and officially counts as recycling, the government has contributed to the situation by issuing backfilling permits.

"It is somewhat of a classic case of approaching the problem from the wrong end, betting on waste sorting to eventually create a market. You first need to create demand and a market – a sensible sorting system will follow," Moora said, giving the example of public tenders, material standards as relevant measures. "Without it, sorting becomes a case of simply going through the motions and the material will not end up used in new construction projects or for other purposes as a result of regulation and high cost."

Rein Kalle, head of the Tallinn Waste Center, also pointed to the problem of logistics.

"The thing with recycled [construction] materials is that you don't know where they are. They can still be stuck in a building that will be demolished next year. Or they can be at a construction site or a warehouse," Kalle said. "You can try to search for them in groups. There are websites you can try, Facebook groups and acquaintances. But you just can't find them. Even if you end up with construction or demolition waste, you don't know where to offer it. You can use classifieds portals, while you may not find a buyer when you need to."

Both Moora and Kalle said that handling, sorting and recycling of waste is expensive for construction companies.

Sigrid Soomlais said that the ministry wants to make the process as cheap as possible. "Sorting should be cheaper than handing over mixed waste. Of course, you need to order different containers and store the waste somewhere. But the cost of all that should be less than the alternative, otherwise the right motivation will never be created. It needs to be cheaper [to recycle] than simply handing over mixed construction and demolition waste.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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