What do we need in order to achieve Circular Economy in construction?

Kimberley Lasi, Sustainable Business Consultant, klasi sustainability ltd.

Circular economy is a popular topic in sustainability spheres. Many regard it as the next step from waste management and resource efficiency. It is a way of thinking about and delivering economic progress in a fundamentally different way to the linear economic model that has been embedded in our society. At its most basic level it is about maximising resource value by keeping products, materials and components in use for as long as possible. 

London Circular explain that Circular Economy means we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end their life. It is a more efficient and environmentally sound alternative to the traditional linear economy in which we make, use and dispose of resources (London Circular, 2018).  

Examples of organisations building circular economy into their business models can be seen across a number of industries, from the coffee industry where used grounds are being turned into clean energy to the fashion industry where off-cuts are being used to create unique clothing and sharing platforms are cropping up to extend the useful life of garments – but what about construction and development?

The construction industry has been working on issues around waste for a long time, and circular economy is essentially the next step in this journey, although to many it may feel less like a step and more like a huge leap – a radical change in ways of doing business. 

A number of schemes and projects have been implemented which target a specific area of the industry or a specific product, such as take back schemes for pallets, and reuse protocols for aggregate – which have been implemented with varying degrees of success. However, in order to create a truly circular construction sector a more strategic approach is required. 

Strategically approaching circular economy for construction requires taking a long term view, holistic approaches to costs and benefits, industry-wide and cross-industry collaboration, innovation and engagement of the whole workforce. 

On a more practical level, there are a number of key issues we must address as an industry in order to effectively implement circular economy principles. 

  • Logistics and Storage
  • Traceability and Data
  • Drivers
  • Behaviours
  • Risk

Logistics and Storage
Much like in the initial stages of introducing concepts such as just-in-time delivery. Storage is a key factor in facilitating circular economy. And, of course, storage is a luxury for most construction projects, particularly those working on tight city centre footprints. Those organisations with access to secure, convenient storage are in a better position to hold materials for reuse on future projects, share or sell them on.  Thus, in order to facilitate recovery and reuse of materials we must optimise existing storage locations and collaborate on logistics to develop solutions that create value for all involved.

Traceability and Data
The traceability and data of materials (or lack thereof) is a challenge with regards to circular economy, particularly in relation to health, safety and maintenance aspects. Anecdotally aesthetic concerns over reused and recycled materials do not seem to be as pervasive as in the past – however, concerns over health, safety, maintenance and quality of such materials continue. There are now innovative industry-wide projects looking at this issue, and it seems likely that going forward there will be a vast increase in the data associated with materials used in projects which will greatly enable the circular economy. However, problems associated with lack of data seem likely to persist and create on-going challenges related to current and historical stock. The benefits of current innovation focussed on improving data and traceability will however certainly be seen in the long-term. 

The development around waste legislation has in the past (rightly) focussed on protecting human health and preventing pollution. However, commercial and societal needs have moved on, as has our understanding of environmental issues and we are now well into an era where optimising resources, even those that may previously have been viewed as waste is of critical importance to secure the sustainability of our industry. Additionally, with the current structure of contracts we also, generally lack explicit commercial drivers for circular economy practices. The current lack of a specific legal driver should not slow down the development of circular economy in construction. The motivation for implementing and delivering on circular processes must instead come from the clients, developers and suppliers themselves – by shifting the way we work together and creating commercial drivers that utilise a longer term, more holistic approach to costs and benefits, including attention to resource scarcity concerns, lifetime cost savings opportunities as well as consideration of environmental and societal externalities.

As with any major change to ways of working there is a behavioural aspect to circular economy. Implementing circular economy in construction will involve changes in ways of working for those at all levels of an organisation and project. The nature of construction is such that many different organisations may be on site at any given time, with differing company cultures and priorities. As such, in order to encourage positive circular economy behaviours at all levels from sourcing reused or recycled materials to effectively managing logistics and of course, using the right bins – engagement of the workforce will be critical.

Inherent in the implementation of circular economy principles for a high-value industry like construction is the element of risk. There is commercial risk associated with potentially higher up-front costs and perceived risks of utilising reused or recycled materials, reducing overall material use and of extending the life of buildings and materials alike. Overcoming these barriers will require collaboration, not only within the construction industry between clients, contractors and suppliers to consider commercial risk but also with the insurance and legal sectors in order to fully understand the risks and opportunities associated with circular economy in construction and develop appropriate instruments which not only safeguard companies from excessive exposure but encourage innovation that will move the circular economy forward.

There are clearly a number of areas that require further development in order to move the industry towards a more circular model. We can see what we need, but how is this going to happen – and who is going to bring it about?

Attend the Annual Debate 2019 where we delve into this topic further.

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