10:00 20.10.2021

In sustainable construction, the use of recycled materials gives the building extra points and increases the company's rating

14 min read
In sustainable construction, the use of recycled materials gives the building extra points and increases the company's rating

Exclusive interview with Andreas Helbl, General Director of iC consulenten Ukraine, Managing Partner, CES clean energy solutions, for the Interfax-Ukraine Agency

Text: Oksana Gryshyna 

- Andreas, which types of hazardous materials can be found in buildings and what threats do they bring for human health?

- This is a very broad issue, as the list of hazardous materials, in particular those used in construction, is constantly changing and supplemented. Research on these issues is constantly conducted, which gives us new information. They are based on statistics that have been collected over the years in various countries around the world, particularly in Europe.

In general, there are several main groups of hazardous materials.

First of all, there are substances that make building materials more elastic or sift for a long period of time, such as Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB). Such compounds are toxic and suspected to cause cancer.

Secondly, these are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), one example of which is tar, which has long been used for waterproofing, especially in the foundations of buildings or roofs. When these substances are removed, particles and compounds can form in the air, inhalation of which can also provoke disease.

Third, these are paints and varnishes containing heavy metals such as lead. Not that it is used everywhere, but, for example, it can be found in hospitals, surgery rooms, steel structure - where durable and/or moisture resistant materials are needed. Of course, there are also lead-based paints that are designed for exterior decoration of buildings. The harm of lead lies in its effect on the blood and the provocation of anemia or its impact on the nervous system. If not handled with care it can also contaminate water.

Another, the most well-known group of hazardous materials are those that contain asbestos, which can cause cancer. There are such materials around - both in Eastern and Western Europe, and also in America. However, due to the fire protection characteristics of the material in Western Europe, asbestos has been much more widely used and used in a much larger list of building materials.

Moving away from the use of asbestos, we came closer to the development of new materials based on artificial mineral fibers. However, in last years it was found that some of these materials are very similar to asbestos in their effects on health - when inhaled and ingested into the lungs, they are suspected to also provoke cancer. That is, for this type of materials you need to invent new ways to remove them.

These are the main categories of hazardous materials, but there are many more, and some of them are already banned.

- Is it true that asbestos in post-Soviet countries is different from asbestos in Western Europe? How and which of them is more dangerous?

- Yes, globally they are divided into two types: chrysotile and amphibole asbestos or, alternatively, white and blue, respectively. I have been working in asbestos abatement since the early 90s, and not only in Austria, so I have seen a huge number of different products. Therefore, I know that it is at least incorrect to say that only one type of asbestos was used in one or another part of Europe even Chrysotile was the most dominant one. I have seen products in Western Europe that contain both chrysotile and amphibole asbestos. Another issue is that in Ukraine there has not yet been conducted qualitative research on the breadth of use of amphibole asbestos. Given that asbestos in general is extremely widely used in both civil and industrial construction, I am convinced that both types can be found in both Ukraine and Eastern Europe in general.

Regarding asbestos hazard issues, I believe that there is no difference between the two types. From a medical point of view, there is a difference. Medical studies state that one species is more dangerous than the other.

However, I suggest looking at this from a different angle. If we take into account that there is a latent period of exposure lasting 20-30 years, while a person can get sick through asbestos, and we continue to use any of its types further, then a whole generation of people is in danger. Therefore, for me there is nothing to discuss here: any type of asbestos is dangerous, and in general, it does not matter how strong this danger is. All these analytical details are unimportant, you just need to protect people from any asbestos at all. For example, I would not be interested at all to find out after 15 years that chrysotile asbestos turned out to be more dangerous than amphibole, but I would use it, considering it is less harmful. We know that asbestos is dangerous in principle, that's all. Therefore, most countries in the world have banned the use of asbestos a long time ago. The market began to offer new types of building materials, and it turned out that there is no such great need for asbestos and that it can be easily substituted with other substances.

- How did these changes affect the market and manufacturers?

- Of course, the market could not help but change, because we had many manufacturers who used asbestos for the production of building materials. But I can honestly say that we have not seen any impact on the economy due to the fact that these manufacturers began to switch to non-asbestos materials. It just took time to change consciousness and technology. Nobody did it all at once, it was a normal step by step process.

- How long did it take?

- Everywhere in different ways, because not all European countries agreed to the changes immediately. Someone started to ban asbestos earlier, some later. In Austria, we started by banning the import and manufacture of asbestos-containing products around the end of the 1980s. Let me give you an example. Earlier in Austria, a product was quite widespread, very similar to Ukrainian slate, which also contained asbestos. So, the company that produced it began to change production back in the late 80s, and gradually, over several years, switched to the manufacture of asbestos-free roofs. Of course, they had a certain amount of old "slate" in their warehouses, and for some time had the opportunity to sell it. Therefore, all processes took place gradually and comprehensively, including the growth of people's consciousness, their understanding of the danger of asbestos. In the end, people themselves stopped buying asbestos-containing materials, not wanting to put themselves in danger, especially since there were already enough alternative materials.

- What is the situation in Austria and Western Europe in general? Are hazardous materials, including asbestos, completely gone?

- They have disappeared from the market in the sense that you will no longer find a product on sale that has the label “contains asbestos.” Unless someone somewhere, for some unknown reason, illegally imports such a product. However, there are a huge number of other hazardous materials that need to be worked with, as well as a huge number of asbestos-containing materials that we have inherited from previous times. So we are still in the process of dealing with them, especially in cases of demolition and reconstruction of old buildings.

As to new construction, hazardous materials are not used there, because it is not just prohibited, but also has no public support. Why build something that won't be in demand? Therefore, I want to especially emphasize the importance of the role of society in such issues - society should not be indifferent and it should influence the change.

- What is the responsibility of contractors and project owners for improper handling of hazardous materials?

- Depends on the country and situation. Here are some examples. Ten years ago, we were invited to Bulgaria, where a Belgian company had a huge production facility, which was connected to a large power plant. Our task was to develop a master plan on how to rehabilitate the production facilities, in particular, on how to remove asbestos. During these years, we are doing this work step by step, in the right way. At the same time, this does not mean that the whole of Bulgaria is moving in this direction. There are many examples where the reconstruction or dismantling of buildings is carried out improperly, adversely affecting the environment and the population. However, I am glad that there are companies like our customers who understand the seriousness of the situation. This is what I consider a successful example.

At the same time, there are opposite situations, also in Austria. It amazes me, but there are still cases when construction companies remove hazardous materials improperly, polluting everything around. A year ago, this was the case when the company not only polluted the environment, but also endangered the health of its employees. Fortunately, neighbors and ordinary individuals paid attention to this and complained to the relevant authorities. The work was stopped, the companies were issued a heavy fine and, of course, forced to dispose of the asbestos properly. The violators were punished - both financially and administratively, and even more severely if their guilt is proven.

Construction companies have a number of responsibilities, including taking care of quality construction and dismantling the health of their employees and compliance with the social conditions and the environment. That is, the "I didn't know" option simply no longer exists - it cannot be an excuse, you have to know the law and act according to it.

Much attention is now being paid in the EU to the issue of the reconstruction of the housing stock in order to improve its energy efficiency. How is the disposal of old building materials carried out?

- It is a process that has no clear time boundaries, it is long. International standards such as ISO and local ones are used to regulate it. The processes are quite clearly regulated.

First, you need to examine the building and determine if it contains materials that are hazardous and/or cause concern. You also have to evaluate what materials can be recycled or otherwise used. That is, a certain catalog of all building materials from which the building is made, both dangerous and safe, is being created. After that, a dismantling concept is drawn up, which very clearly prescribes what to do with each material, where and how to dispose of hazardous components - all according to absolutely clear and understandable norms and legal requirements. And only with this concept, the company can begin dismantling. First, hazardous materials are removed, and then it is already possible to carry out a complete dismantling.

We also have laws governing the handling of construction waste. Behind them, the materials to be recycled must necessarily be separated from others and recycled, it is also indicated where exactly these materials are sent. Some can be given to landfills, but now it is almost impossible - you need to give as much material as possible to recycling, even concrete.

- Are building materials from old buildings used to construct new objects?

- Yes of course. All materials from the building being dismantled are divided and separated from each other. First of all, we are talking about steel and other metals, which are valuable, and concrete, which is processed using special grinders and used in new construction, road construction and the like. For example, Vienna has a new district of Aspern built on the site of an airfield. Concrete from the former runways was used in it for the construction on site.

And in modern sustainable/green building certification schemes, the use of recycled materials is a separate evaluation criteria that gives the building additional points and raises the rating of the development. This is very important for developers, because the better its rating, the more willing banks will be to lend to their projects. After all, in the future, only companies that use environmentally friendly, greener and safer materials will be able to receive funding.

- What to do with metal-plastic windows, for which replacement has already begun? Can they be remodeled?

- In general, there is no single rule for windows, but there are several different methods. There are several recyclable components here: glass, plastic, and metal. It is easier to separate the glass - if desired, this can be done almost by hand. Or the glass can be crushed and made into raw materials for further use. The rest of the components are a little more complicated, but in general, all elements can be recycled.

- What about insulation, in particular, mineral wool?

- Man-made Mineral Fibers (Mineral wool, glass wool, rock wool, etc.) as an insulation material is now at the center of much discussion, because it began to be widely used back in the 1990s. However, unfortunately, over the past 10 years, we have come to the conclusion that specifically the old products might be similar as dangerous as asbestos and has a potentially harmful effect. Potentially - only because there has never been a complete, deep and complex scientific study of this issue in practice and laboratory conditions regarding the carcinogenicity of these mineral fibers. But we know in such detail about asbestos, just based on experience and despite the fibers, comparing asbestos and mineral wool, we can conclude about the danger of the latter, because these two materials are very similar. It is worth remembering that mineral wool fibers can be inhaled and will end up in the lungs. Proceeding from this, just as we do not remake asbestos, in the same place we do not remake mineral wool. Therefore, in the case of dismantling, we take out the mineral wool, pack it in containers, mark it and send it to the landfill for storage.

- But mineral wool is still widely used in construction as an insulator.

- Yes, but its production technology has changed, so has its composition. I would say that mineral wool, which has been produced since about the beginning of the 2000s, is not considered to be dangerous or harmful for the environment.

- Everything that we discussed today is very complex things. What are the first steps Ukraine needs to take in this direction?

- Indeed, these are very lengthy processes, and the good news is that you have already started them. However, the journey can take years, it can take a generation, and that's okay. For example, in Austria, we knew about the dangers of asbestos back in the late 1970s, and it still took at least 15 years to comprehensively resolve this issue. You have everything ahead, you just have to do everything step by step. To begin with, I would again think of financial leverage. Large government programs like large-scale thermal modernization of buildings are usually supported by international banks. Even in the private sector, they often apply for loans from international financial institutions. They, in turn, have long had established clear criteria and requirements for borrowers. In particular, these requirements relate to the sustainability of construction, and if the project does not meet these requirements, then it will not receive funding, regardless of its size and level of importance. And you will come to the conclusion that ultimately Ukrainian banks will have the same requirements for borrowers as in international ones. That is, on the whole, this issue is already effectively regulated by the market itself. The next step is to create a legislative framework, and this is the process that Ukraine is going through now. And most importantly, with the awareness of the situation by both society and developers, citizens themselves will make a choice in favor of either ugly and harmful, or beautiful and safe objects.