Research released by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) has revealed that institutional barriers are preventing building materials from being recycled and renewed.

Commissioned by the Institute, researchers from RMIT and the University of Wollongong have analysed the life cycles of building materials in a bid to reduce the construction industry’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

“Although much of the waste generated through construction or demolition can be recycled or be used as a resource in other ways, in general, construction businesses are reluctant to do so,” says RMIT University Professor Tony Dalton, who authored the research.

“Instead they find that the cost of reusing materials is higher than using new materials; there isn’t an established market for waste materials; they’re hesitant to use available technological and practical knowledge to reduce the waste; and there is a broad perception that Australia has abundant supplies of natural resources so they don’t really need to bother.”

Residential building materials are responsible for 5.7 million tonnes of GHG emissions each year, as of 2020, doubling over the last 50 years. Analysis of the industry over the period 2007–2019 shows that the use of new building materials is more than double the flow out of waste materials, which shows the consumption of new materials is growing rapidly.

“Our research established that 27 industries deliver products and services to the building site when a house or apartment building is being constructed,” says Dalton. 

“Because residential building projects are time-limited, one-off projects, these supply chains are being continuously dismantled and remade for each new project, which limits the ability of the suppliers to introduce changes to materials or their use.

“We found that policy development should focus on creating incentives for construction companies to reuse materials, as well as encouraging other ways to reduce embodied energy through material selection and the use of local products that require less transportation. 

“Government regulation can target low carbon building methods and materials, including supporting reuse, rethink, repurpose or remanufacture.”

Dalton says that investment decisions can support decarbonisation and stimulate demand for recycled materials, and called upon the government specifying the appropriate use of recycled or low embodied-carbon building materials in future public projects.

“Ultimately, the idea that carbon is embodied in building materials is a new concept for most people involved in the residential housing system,” he says. 

“Providing education and training on the benefits and practicalities of building with the circular economy in mind is a high priority.”

To read the report, click here.