How to transition to a Circular Economy

The Circular Economy was a hot topic at this year’s Ecobuild.  Greengage were pleased to have facilitated the Marks and Spencer Workshop on the “Circular Economy Challenge; What does Good Shop-Fit look like”? ecobuild

The interest in the subject at Ecobuild and beyond reflects the current efforts to transition from the tradition linear model of make, use and dispose to one that encourages reusing and recycling as much as possible through the form of a circular economy.  Other principles also include use of recycled material, materials that are durable, can be reused and have low VOC content as well as low embodied carbon.

Retaining materials in productive use for extended periods, their eventual reuse, with improved efficiency will all help improve the competitiveness of the construction industry, create new business opportunities and revenue streams, while minimising the environmental impact of mining, resource extraction, refining and manufacture.

However, it is obvious that the construction industry is nowhere near a circular economy.  Despite valid efforts in some fields, our industry is still responsible for c.110m tonnes of waste per annum, a third of which goes straight to landfill to create methane, a gas 25 times as potent as CO2.

For the construction industry to really become a meaningful advocate of the Circular Economy, waste is one of the key areas to be addressed.  For that to happen, a more collaborate process is required before a single sod is turned!  The majority of environmental damage is predetermined during the concept design of materials and the buildings they form.  Therefore, it is at this stage that we need to consider the principles of the circular economy.

Obviously, the big ticket items such as concrete needs focus as concrete accounts for between 30-50% of a buildings embodied carbon.  However, attention must also be placed on commercial interiors and shop-fit, as M&S are now doing.  Such fit-outs may seem minor in terms of embodied energy and waste but over the life cycle of a building, they will have an impact if replaced regularly.  Floor finishes for instance are replaced every 7 -10 years.  Currently c.600,000 tonnes of flooring is disposed of each year.  Less than 2% is recycled and a shocking 90% goes to landfill. no Plan B

How can the wider industry respond to such waste?  One way perhaps is to pass the costs of disposal back to the supplier.  A levy, applied at the point of sale, based on the amount of packaging or amount of disposable products or based on a proportion of their environmental impact.

Designers need to avoid over-designing, reduce amounts of material used and aim to close the technical loop through using recovered/ recycled and bio-based materials as well as consideration of durability and flexibility for future uses.  Incorporation of such principles will reduce the environmental impact of our work significantly.  Reused timber for instance has 75% lower environmental impact compared to new (even sustainably sourced) timber products.

We also need to challenge the supply chain to provide Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) as standard.  The information provided with EPDs could be expanded upon to include some of the other principles mentioned above, effectively resulting in a ‘raw-material passport’.  Such demands can only help to stimulate innovation and resilience within the supply chain.

In the construction industry, we need to imagine what we want our product or building to look like in 20, 30, 50 years, envisaging the journey it will undergo before working back from there.  How many retrofits will the interiors undergo, how many major refurbishments are expected?  By understanding the long term strategy we can start to encapsulate the fundamental transition to the circular economy.  We need to start with the end in mind!

Greengage are a sustainability consultancy that works in partnership with our clients to deliver truly sustainable solutions, through a holistic, innovative and no nonsense approach.

For more information please contact Lesley Treacy, Associate Partner, Lesley.treacy@greengage-env.com