The construction industry fears that new federal regulations will make construction more expensive and make it more difficult to recycle the immense amounts of construction waste in Germany. The blanket ordinance for substitute building materials and soil protection that came into force on August 1 replaces a patchwork of different state regulations. But the industry is already reporting signs that the first recycling companies no longer want to accept construction waste for processing – instead, construction waste would then have to be disposed of in landfills.

“The focus is now on groundwater protection, and the ordinance sets very high standards here,” said Christine Buddenbohm, Managing Director of Corporate Development at the Central Association of the German Construction Industry (ZDB). “The water that seeps through recycled building materials and ends up in the groundwater needs to be of better quality than drinking water.”

The explanation from the Federal Ministry for the Environment shows that the new regulations are intended to prevent undesirable substances from being washed out into the groundwater. Accordingly, a “groundwater-free seepage path” must be taken into account under the structure.

220 million tons in just one year

The amounts of construction waste produced are almost unimaginable: According to the Federal Environment Agency, more than 220 million tons of construction waste were produced in 2020, which is more than half of the total waste generated in Germany. According to the Federal Office, 129 million tons were excavated soil, dredged material and track ballast, the remaining 91 million tons were construction waste in the narrower sense, including rubble, road debris and construction site waste. Most of this was salvaged, often to backfill old pits, but some 77 million tonnes of recycled building materials were also produced.

According to the ZDB, the new rules have been discussed for many years. Bavaria finally pushed through an opening clause for the federal states. The general ordinance was finally passed in 2021 and is now in force after a two-year transition period.

“The last federal government got the ordinance on its way in the last breath, and in doing so, overturned our concerns,” says Buddenbohm. “The whole thing has now come at the expense of recycling.”

Concrete, old bricks, tiles are ground up

The question is whether the leaching of recycled building materials can damage the groundwater. “Not every drop that gets into the ground automatically leads to damage,” argues the ZDB managing director.

Recycling in building materials means that concrete, old bricks, tiles and the like are roughly ground up and made into aggregate to replace gravel or other stones. In order to be used, approval as a mineral replacement building material is required.

The central association tends to represent medium-sized and smaller companies, while the main association of the German construction industry represents larger companies. The environment ministry wanted more protection of resources and created a jungle of evidence, legal uncertainties and different interpretations, criticizes the construction industry. “The Substitute Building Materials Ordinance is a flop,” accuses General Manager Tim-Oliver Müller of the federal government.

“I strongly assume that in the future more resources will be sent to landfills than today.” The association fears that the new regulations would lead to higher construction costs. The construction and real estate sectors are already suffering equally from the sharp rise in construction costs – property developers are canceling orders and the construction companies involved are missing new orders. The building associations criticize, among other things, the obligation to report transports of rubble to the authorities. The federal government is currently planning a new ordinance, but this has not yet been decided.

demand for monitoring

It is unclear whether and how much additional rubble will actually end up in landfills. “We demand that monitoring be set up as soon as possible so that we know whether there is a shift in mass flow towards landfills,” says ZDB Managing Director Buddenbohm.

According to the Federal Environment Ministry, the effects on the “material flows” are to be evaluated two years after the new regulations come into force, and a report is to be submitted to the Bundestag on August 1, 2027.

Based on a simulation game, the federal government is anticipating hardly any or only minor changes in the material flows. “Whether this is actually the case is not yet possible to estimate more specifically than before, because the regulation has only been in force for a few weeks,” says a ministry spokesman. In addition, a scientific accompanying report is planned, which has not yet been put out to tender. “Consequently, valid results can only be expected in a few years.”