Embracing the Circular Economy: How Government Support Can Break Down Barriers to Recycling Construction Waste


The construction industry plays a significant role in our everyday lives, shaping the structures we live and work in. Yet, it’s an undeniable fact that it also contributes significantly to environmental degradation. A new research study conducted by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) reveals that the construction sector accounts for a whopping 18% of Australia’s carbon footprint.


This sobering statistic underscores the urgent need for change. But where should we begin? The research study, aptly titled “Building Materials in a circular economy,” offers some insights. It delves into the life cycles of building materials, examining their journey from the construction site to either disposal or recycling when a building is no longer in use. The goal? To find ways for the residential housing industry to lower greenhouse gas emissions.


The Reluctance to Recycle


Given the clear environmental implications, construction businesses would be eager to recycle or repurpose waste. However, the reality is quite the opposite. Several barriers deter these companies from embracing more sustainable practices.

First, reusing materials is often more expensive than simply buying new ones. Second, a viable market for waste materials is largely absent. Third, many businesses are hesitant to utilize existing technological and practical knowledge that could help reduce waste. And finally, there’s a pervasive belief that Australia’s vast natural resources eliminate the need for recycling.


The Alarming Impact

Over the last half-century, the environmental impact of residential building materials has nearly doubled. Greenhouse gas emissions have risen from 3.2 million tonnes to 5.7 million tonnes in 2020. Moreover, the consumption of new building materials outpaces the flow of waste materials by more than double.


A Call to Action 

The report argues that overcoming these barriers will require a concerted effort from both the government and the construction industry. Policy development should incentivise construction companies to reuse materials and reduce embodied energy through material selection and the use of local products to cut down on transportation. Further, government regulations should actively support low-carbon building methods and materials. This could include encouraging reuse, rethinking, repurposing, and remanufacturing processes. One way to do this is by stipulating using recycled or low embodied-carbon building materials in government building contracts, which can help reduce carbon-intensive building practices and materials.


Education is Key 

Ultimately, a significant part of this transformation will rely on education. The idea that carbon is embodied in building materials is relatively new, and many people involved in the residential housing system are unfamiliar with it. Therefore, providing education and training on the benefits and practicalities of a circular economy in the construction industry is highly prioritised.

Change is needed, and the government and the construction industry will play pivotal roles in ushering in a more sustainable future. The stakes are high, but with a commitment to change and the right strategies in place, we can begin to reduce the carbon footprint of the construction industry.

For those interested in diving deeper into this subject, the full research report is available for download on the AHURI website.