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SAICM Report Urges More Circularity for Building and Construction Materials

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By IISD’s SDG Knowledge Hub , June 30, 2021

A report published by the UN Environment Programme's (UNEP) Chemicals and Health Branch, as part of a project under the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), identifies chemicals of concern in building and construction - one of the most chemical-intensive sectors downstream of the chemical industry. The publication also highlights gaps, challenges, and opportunities to increase circularity in the building and construction sector. 

The report titled 'Chemicals of Concern in the Building and Construction Sector' covers chemicals with documented applications in building materials and other products, formulations intended for permanent incorporation in the built environment, and chemicals that may be of concern during at least one life-cycle stage of a building. It also includes chemicals and formulations used for installing building products, such as glues for installing floor tiles. 

Construction and demolition waste often represents a country's largest proportion of total waste generated. 

Building and construction is the largest end market for chemicals and the sector that generates the highest chemical revenue. Its products include commodity chemicals such as plastic resins (e.g. PVC) and specialty chemicals, such as paints, coatings, adhesives, sealants, advanced polymers, and additives. Driven by rapidly accelerating urbanization, the global construction sector is expected to grow by 3.5% annually, with an increase in its chemicals market of 6.2% annually,  between 2018 and 2023. 

Compared to other consumer products, such as textiles, electronics, or toys, products relevant for the building and construction sector are used solely in the context of the built environment and, therefore, directly linked to the life cycle of buildings. A building’s life cycle can last from several decades to centuries, and is much longer compared to other products. This creates a greater lag between the design and manufacturing stages of a construction product and its end-of-life stages. During this lag time, knowledge increases regarding chemicals, their hazards, and potential impacts on health and the environment. The report notes that the issue of legacy chemicals is therefore important to consider in the building and construction sector.

At their end of life, building and construction products enter the waste stream as construction and demolition waste, which often represents the largest proportion of total waste generated in a country. Chemicals of concern in hazardous construction and demolition waste can pose a considerable risk of environmental pollution and human health impacts if not managed soundly. 
 
In addition, information on the composition of individual products or product groups is often not readily available to the public, making it challenging to identify and address chemicals of concern in specific applications and products. Also on gaps, information on chemicals in building products tends to reflect their use in developed countries only, not in developing countries and economies in transition.

The authors point to the need for additional research and collaboration to address emerging concern about additional chemicals in the sector. They advise a precautionary approach where evidence of concern is emerging, or where data gaps on hazards and potential impacts exist.

The sound management of chemicals and waste is integral to and cuts across the SDGs. SDG targets 12.4 (achieving the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle) and 3.9 (reducing the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals) are directly relevant, while many other SDGs and targets cannot be achieved without sound chemicals and wastes sound management. Thus, addressing chemicals of concern in building and construction provides significant opportunities for sustainable development. 

The report recommends:

  • increasing information transparency on chemicals;
  • ensuring information flow along the entire life cycle of building products;
  • designing for circularity;
  • for existing buildings, minimizing impacts of legacy chemicals while developing new recycling technologies; and
  • targeted regulatory action.

The May 2021 publication was developed within the framework of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) project on Global best practices on emerging chemical policy issues of concern under SAICM. The project is funded by the GEF, implemented by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and executed by the SAICM Secretariat. [Publication: Chemicals of Concern in the Building and Construction Sector] [Landing Page]