Some researchers define the Anthropocene as beginning at the Industrial Revolution. Others identify it with the explosion of the first nuclear bomb, and others with the advent of agriculture. Regarding the precise timeline, there is not yet a scientific consensus. But the notion that human activities have been generating changes with planetary repercussions, whether in the temperature of the Earth, in biomes, or in ecosystems, is one that has become increasingly popular. The anthropocene would be a new geological era marked by the impact of human action on planet Earth. This acknowledgement of human impact is particularly disturbing if we consider that if the entire history of the Earth were condensed in 24 hours, humans would only appear in the last 20 seconds. Whether in the massive extraction of natural resources or in the carbon release from vehicles and industries, it is well known that a large part of the fault lies with construction activities, especially in the production of solid waste due to waste and demolition. In Brazil, for example, civil construction waste can represent between 50% and 70% of the mass of solid urban waste . Many will end up being discarded irregularly or thrown in landfills to be buried indefinitely.
But together with the growing awareness of human climate impact, several initiatives have begun appearing to mitigate the impacts of an increasingly urban world. Significant changes in the way we produce and dispose are essential. While the so-called traditional linear economy is based on the growing extraction of natural resources, and the disposal as waste at the end of the material's useful life, the circular economy is based on three principles: elimination or reduction of waste, maintenance of the products and materials in use, and regeneration of natural systems . It is inspired by the mechanisms of natural ecosystems, in which processes work in cycles of resorption and recycling, returning everything back to nature with little environmental impact. According to this reasoning, when a material no longer serves its pre-established use, it can be repaired, reused, and recycled, returning to the cyclical flow. Along the same lines, the concept of urban mining points out that in today's cities, many raw materials are no longer found at their original source, but appear in new anthropogenic repositories, especially in buildings. Large quantities of raw materials are stored in our buildings and, as a result, cities can be considered immense repositories of raw materials.
In practice, accessing and using these materials is not always so simple. Reusing a material or product requires a much more careful demolition or disassembly, inspections regarding the condition of the part, and dealing with limited stocks. When working with deadlines, standards, and budgets, incorporating these so-called “alternative materials” can be a risk that architects are not willing to take. Gradually, some companies are emerging to supply this growing market.
A good example is Rotor Deconstruction, a Belgian pioneer in the field of recovered building components. The team disassembles, conditions, and sells the materials, in addition to assisting building owners, contractors, and architects in their use. According to them, “by using recovered goods, you not only reduce the amount of demolition waste, but also acquire quality construction materials, in addition to having a lower environmental impact. It is often possible to find pieces designed by renowned architects, created by skilled artisans, or made with technologies now out of reach. ” Other good examples of European companies operating in the same field are Materialnomaden in Austria and Salza and Bauteilboerse-bremen in Germany, among others.
But it is natural to ask: what is the difference between these companies and a junkyard or an antique store? The main issue is greater product control, specialized technical assistance, and an awareness of the possibilities of use and even their limitations. RotorDC, for example, carries out intensive research and has launched an illustrated inventory aimed at students and professionals active in the construction field (architects, civil engineers) or those concerned with the reuse of construction materials (design offices, manufacturers, public authorities, consultants in the environment). Even the forays into the “mines” are documented, showing the materials found, the difficulties, and even a certain nostalgia when dealing with constructed memories that will eventually disappear.
From wooden beams and hydraulic tiles to mirrors and bathroom lamps, the product range is immense, all documented and properly cataloged on their website. In addition to reuse and revaluation, diverting these elements from the waste stream is a form of preservation complementary to the efforts made by actors established in the historical preservation of buildings. Naturally, some technical, legislative, social, and cultural challenges still hinder the evolution of uses towards a 'truly circular' economy model for the construction sector. This is a new debate, but a very important one.
As sustainability researcher Günther Bachmann points out in his introduction to the book Manual of Recycling - Buildings as Sources of Materials : “Construction in the Anthropocene era will rely on the recovery and recycling of building materials, life cycles, circular planning, and cost control, and on responsible ownership instead of on linear, expansive growth categories such as demands, investment costs, landfill sites, and the logic of the real estate market.”
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Recycled Materials. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics here. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.
-  IPEA. Diagnóstico dos Resíduos Sólidos da Construção Civil [PDF]
-  ELLEN MACARTHUR FOUNDATION. Towards the circular economy: Economic and business rationale for an accelerated transition. 2013.
-  Hillebrandt, Annette; Riegler-Floors, Petra; Rosen, Anja; Seggewies, Johanna-Katharina. Manual of Recycling: Building as Sources of Materials. Edition Detail. 2019
This article was originally published on 07/08/2020 and updated on 06/24/2021.