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Urban Mining – cities, buildings and products as valuable resources

Ecological, economical and social pressure will increase with respect to the use of natural resources more than in any other area, due to the finite nature of fossil fuels as well as the foreseeable rise in environmental emissions. Besides the construction sector – which uses nearly 50 % of raw materials, produces almost 60 % of all waste and is responsible for 30 % of the water consumption – all industrial production enterprises also play a major role in this development. That is why the Vaillant Group ardently supports sustainable activities not only in production, but also in the area of Research & Products, because conservation of resources starts before the conception of a new product.

For decades already recycling has been an issue with broad support among the population. However, recycling has been limited primarily to articles of everyday use, such as packaging material, electrical appliances or paper. In comparison, the use of other resources would appear to be much more short-sighted. Because the reuse of raw materials from the existing infrastructure or systems that are defective or no longer needed creates enormous saving potential, which is also very important economically.

Urban mining

The term “urban mining” regards cities, infrastructure facilities, buildings and all industrial products as raw material mines, which assimilate valuable resources over periods of different lengths. Not only is functional renovation becoming more lucrative in view of rising raw material prices and decreasing urban open spaces, but also the actual materials used are gaining in value as “urban mines”. Instead of disposing of raw materials as waste after their useful life, they become valuable materials that can subsequently be processed for reuse.

The issue of recycling in this concept is already relevant during the planning of new construction projects and the products to be used in those projects. Because the use of materials beyond the useful life of the building or of the product should already be taken into account in the planning phase. To this end, all products used must be ecologically safe, easily separable by material and suitable for recycling. Another aspect in the planning of a new building is the use of already recycled materials.

Waste and scrap will no longer exist in a closed material cycle; there will only be reusable raw materials.

Regulatory framework

The European Commission roadmap for a resource-efficient Europe (2011) states: “The vision: By 2050 the EU's economy has grown in a way that respects resource constraints and planetary boundaries... All resources are sustainably managed, from raw materials to energy, water, air, land and soil. Climate change milestones have been reached, ...”. The European construction product legislature for CE labelling of construction materials is a step in the right direction. The sustainable use of resources was included as the most important criterion in the Europe-wide standardised guidelines for the use and suitability of construction products. The issue of conservation of resources therefore has a high political priority.

On their own initiative, enterprises and planners meanwhile have taken a common position on the issue and strive to bring the champions of the industry together with the vision “Cradle to Cradle®”. The principle was developed in the 1990s by Michael Braungart and William McDonough. The goal is twofold: to reuse resources in continuous material cycles and also to maintain the quality of the materials. Down cycling with loss of quality is replaced by up cycling.

Product design in accordance with the criteria of the material cycle

Before resources from construction waste or products can be reused, they have to be separated. However, many of the commonly used composite materials are wholly unsuitable for high-quality recycling, since the single components cannot be separated by material. It is therefore especially important that industrial enterprises and manufacturers explore the use of construction methods and products that are suitable for recycling. Products and systems must be developed and designed so that they can be separated into their single components and materials after use; they must also be ecologically safe to allow recycling.

The Vaillant Group today already implements binding goals and specific measures for development and production throughout the value chain. These include the use of eco-friendly materials and resources, the implementation of eco-design standards and the optimisation of post-use recycling and waste disposal. This commitment has been recognised with diverse sustainability awards.