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Circular Economy and Construction: safe materials in an era of recycling

25 October 2023
Article by Gabriela Ventura and Anabela Martins, INEGI researchers in the field of air quality.

At a time when the scarcity of resources and the pressure to which our planet is subject require action, circular economy appears as a light at the end of the tunnel. One of the essential vectors of the circular economy is the promotion of the circularity of products with the reuse - in whole, or in part - for the production of other goods, allowing their life cycle to be extended.

Among the sectors where this approach is particularly relevant, the construction industry stands out. Known not only for the significant generation of waste, but also for the substantial consumption of resources, this sector has a high potential for circularity.

In light of the General Waste Management Regime, Decree Law no. 102-D/2020, which sets the objective for 2025 to reduce by 5% the amount of non-urban waste per unit of gross domestic product, particularly in the civil construction and public works, the need to transform the performance of this sector is undeniable.

Can dangerous substances resurface in reused materials?

However, the path to circularity in construction is not without obstacles and that is why we issue a warning to companies: it is essential to monitor the presence of toxic chemical compounds in the material to be reused, which becomes «raw material» for the manufacture of new products.

Dangerous substances, currently banned, or at least restricted in terms of quantity, could reappear in emissions from construction materials and contribute to the deterioration of indoor air quality. It is, therefore, important to characterize the «new raw materials» to prevent the spread of contamination.

The publication of Decree Law No. 11/2023, of February 10, simplified environmental licensing, providing, in a circular economy logic, fewer administrative obstacles for companies that reuse waste. Despite this simplification, manufacturers must not compromise the safety and health of their customers, and the analysis of possible toxic chemical compounds becomes even more pressing.

How to test materials?

How to ensure that building materials from recycling or reuse are free from harmful substances?

INEGI's Indoor Air Quality Laboratory, one of the first laboratories in Portugal to dedicate itself to the detailed characterization of volatile organic compounds, carries out tests on samples of various construction materials to research the presence of possible toxic substances, supporting industrial development of "cleaner” materials.

Not forgetting that all construction products must comply with legal requirements in terms of fire behavior, at INEGI's Smoke and Fire Laboratory, the way in which materials react to fire is analyzed, and compliance with standards that are particularly demanding in this sector.

Our mission is to support companies in the development of products, in terms of environment, quality and safety, and we also make our commitment to contribute to the creation of more sustainable products, but without sacrificing careful monitoring of the origin and composition of reused materials, in order to guarantee the elimination of toxic chemical compounds that could compromise the safety of new products.

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