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Turning dust to gold – circular use of infrastructure materials could save carbon emissions and reduce raw material costs of EUR 6 billion per year in Europe

The aggregate resources beneath our feet represent a huge value made visible by reusing them, according to a new Urban Insight report by Sweco that focuses on the circularity of infrastructure materials. 

Each year Europe produces 4.2 billion tonnes of aggregates. This volume is equivalent to covering an entire country the size of Denmark to a depth of 33 cm every year, and is the size of 33 Matterhorn mountain peaks.

Today, the European aggregate sector is only 7 per cent circular – but according to the European Aggregates Association, it is possible to reach 20 per cent circularity. In the new Urban Insight report “Circular materials in infrastructure – The road to a decarbonised future”, Sweco shows that by going from a 7 per cent circular use of aggregates to 20 per cent, it is possible to reduce virgin material costs of up to EUR 6 billion, saving 546 million tonnes each year. This is almost the same quantity that Germany produces every year.

“Aggregates are, and need to be seen as, resources that are valued much more than they currently are. By applying a circular approach, significant environmental, financial and societal improvements can be achieved compared with current practices. Even marginal savings can lead to major benefits due to the large quantities that are managed,” says Karin Larsson, Team Manager Waste and Resource Management at Sweco in Sweden.

In the report, Sweco takes a closer look at two European railway construction projects and how circular measures could be used to reduce emissions and costs. Given the size of major infrastructure projects, a mere 1 per cent reduction in haulage will yield significant savings in carbon emissions and costs. For a large railway project in Europe, this would reduce the transport of aggregates by 347,000 km, saving EUR 3.2 million and 1,500 tonnes of CO2e.

“Achieving a one per cent reduction through circular measures is possible in many projects, and the potential is many times higher,” Karin Larsson says.

Individual marginal gains can then be translated into substantial benefits, both environmental and economic.

To make this important shift faster, Sweco has made an action list aiming at making gains in the areas of:

  • Regulation and guidance, procurement and specification
  • Collaboration, data use and digital tools
  • Financial instruments and incentives and planning