Photographer: Emily Aquilina


Anton Maertens, Advocacy & Business Development at BC Materials, was a policy advisor amongst other roles within the fields of circular economy and climate change. Driven by reducing waste, in 2019 he joined BC Materials — a cooperative transforming excavated earth into ready-to-use building materials.

What drives you the most?

It is not easy to point to one single factor, because there are many things that motivate me.
For me, it's an emotional experience to see how we are squandering the resources of our planet and how little we reuse. And I think it is important to act on behalf of the future generations and ensure that what we do now won’t make the planet worse for them. In fact, ideally I would want to leave it in a better state than it is now. 

Given that you have worked as a Policy Advisor, what do you consider as the main barriers for pushing the sustainable agenda forward?

There are a lot of barriers and I don't want to turn this conversation into a complaint registry because I believe — and hope — that all of these obstacles can be overcome. Some of them are quite easy, but all together they can form a bit of a blob of obstacles that people use as an excuse across the industry.

The first one is of course standardisation. There are certain standards for products that have been certified and legislated by the building industry 30 years ago. And this of course can hamper innovation, as anything new might not have the right certifications right away. All of this can bring sceptic reactions towards a company that uses waste-based materials, because a lot of legislation and insurance aspects are not aligned with this approach. In general, this problem can be overcome, also because legislation is moving forward. We, for example, are in the process of getting all the certifications needed for all our materials, it would just help if, instead of taking years, the whole operation could be faster. I don't think we have that much time anymore to fool around with administration and bureaucracy. 

Secondly, there are still some negative associations around the aesthetics and the imagery attached to it. Lots of people like our materials, because of their quality, circularity, and health aspects. But there is still a certain group of people who associate earth with being “Hippie” or “Hobbit housing” and this of course means that a shift in mindset as well as in social perception needs to happen.

Thirdly, there is a big practical obstacle, as all these materials need to be handled and applied by people. Which means that we need contractors and craftsmen who are well versed in using them, and working with them. And unfortunately, there are not a lot of contractors and builders who are used to building with circular, earth-based materials. It is understandable, they have a responsibility for the labour they provide, so of course they tend to work with materials more familiar to them. This could be solved of course, through training and education, but it takes time, resources & financing.

Finally, we don't want to be another cookie in the box, we want to replace certain other cookies in the box. For example, we want to replace interior bricks (or interior blockwork) with our Compressed Earth Blocks, because they are much better for the planet, the air quality and humidity regulation, and they are perfectly reusable. We are currently a bit more expensive, but we are progressively eliminating this difference. But the reality is that we are a startup that is working within a linear economy that is constantly feeding a system which is overproducing and does not account for how things are produced, consumed, and dispersed. And this is the big challenge.

I like your cookie box approach, replacing existing cookies with new ones. You also mentioned that there is no time for bureaucracy, how do we accelerate and replace existing materials? 

For a long time a lot of people thought all these ecologically-conscious products would fight their way into the markets, the best would survive, and then we will have better products and things will turn out fine. What we see now is that this kind of approach doesn't work because the market is rigid and locked in by cheap fossil energy. And even if they aren’t the optimal choice they can count on the fact that they are cheap, good to use for a few years, and then simply disposed of.

I hope for an era where we will have less choice of materials but the materials we càn choose, will be more qualitative and better for the planet. Public competitions, tenders, and every government order account for 10-12% of the market. If tuned to circular criteria, this could really be a great leverage for the first movers on the circular material market. 

Another possibility to accelerate is what we already have in Denmark, France, and some other countries, which started capping the total CO2 emissions of a building starting from the materials.
I think what is difficult to understand for many people is that when one heats a building it gets heated every year and mostly in the winter, which means that those emissions are spread over 20 years or so. But when one builds a new building, the CO2 emissions of the materials used for the construction have an effect immediately. And that's something that we need to avoid in this decade because the window of opportunity to keep a liveable planet is shrinking.

What role do you think data and LCA play in this “acceleration”? Is it a leverage or do you think it can also hinder in some ways when people become too obsessed with data? 

Yeah, it's a good point. It's very important that we have the right data, but, as we all know, you can do a lot of stuff with data and you can cherry pick and you can frame certain data towards certain ends. So, even with an LCA, you have to be careful about the interpretation of the data. And it also very much depends on the phases that are considered; for example what happens actually to a material at the end of life? The issue is that we base many things on how we used to use them instead of what we should be doing or could be doing. Actually ensuring that the material will be recycled, repurposed, or reassembled in the end isn’t yet on the agenda.

Other times, the intuition that you have toward a material can be wrong and it's a good thing that there's scientific evidence to back that up. For example, with paper packaging the LCA has shown that if you use paper packaging only once it's actually worse than plastic packaging.

All in all I agree with the principle of the LCA and I think it's a good system to work with… but if and only if we have reliable and good data.

What do you imagine the built environment should look like in 2030?

I can see an industry working smarter, with shorter distances, building less but renovating much more. Using less materials and investing a lot more in renovation and modification of existing buildings. An increase in the adoption of bio-based and geo-based materials, with buildings becoming carbon sinks instead of carbon emitters. One can only hope of course, so, if i have to be realistic, maybe by 2030 we will only be doing 10% of this. I think for us in Western Europe and in the United States, at some point in the near future, we should ideally stop building new buildings, and reuse & extend much more. But for this to happen there needs to be some kind of redistribution of what exists now and a modification to how it's used. There are many neighbourhoods filled with empty offices…

Finally, the last question is free for interpretation. What is your advice for those who strive to change the industry for the better?

Perseverance. Because the odds are against you, because the system we are in isn’t made for this. It's like running up a hill and you will need to accept that things don’t move as fast as you would like them to. But there are more opportunities now than there were 10 years ago. Today there is more awareness, money, and initiatives around all these topics. One has to be pragmatic and idealistic at the same time. And finally, don't try to do something just on your own; try to find supporters or partners to make it happen — you can do so much more, together with other people.