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Circular Economy

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The concept of a circular economy has featured in many political, economic and business dialogues in recent years, attracting a lot of high-level attention. Megatrends such as urbanisation, industrialisation or the aging population are putting pressure on natural resources that is aggravated by the continued threat of climate change. The world is facing unprecedented environmental threats and businesses face severe disruptions due to the insecurity of supply and volatility of the markets.

Figure 1: transitioning from a Linear to a Circular Economy

The circular economy offers an alternative approach to economic growth by utilising fewer resources hence minimising the impact on natural resources. This can be done by minimising the resource input, while aiming to keep the products and services at their maximum utility through their lifecycle and, reclaim, reuse or recycle materials at the end of their life.

It is an alternative model to the traditional linear economy (make - use - dispose) that encourages long-term sustainability by preserving resources, improving market competitiveness by unlocking new business opportunities and reducing costs by maximising the product lifecycle.

BSRIA recognises the enormous potential of circular economy principles for the progression of sustainability in buildings, community spaces and cities and is, therefore, embracing the topic with the aim of translating the high-level principles to sector specific processes in building services and in the wider built environment.

Circular economy principles

In a report published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (Growth Within: A Circular Economy Vision for a Competitive Europe 2015), the concept rests on three core principles:

  • Preserve and enhance natural capital.
  • Optimise resource yields.
  • Minimise system risks and improve its effectiveness.

In a circular economy, the aim is to maximise the utility of the existing infrastructure across the product value chain, where the waste from one system can be utilised as the input in another system. This can only work well when a system’s view of large value chains with multiple stages of material input, use and recycling are considered. Applying these principles means creating an economy that is restorative and regenerative, that preserves ecosystems and increases their return over time and that fuels growth by capturing more value from existing infrastructure.

Here we have narrowed down the focus to the built environment where some key characteristics need to be noted:

  • • Compared with other sectors, buildings don’t typically operate on a take-make-dispose system.
  • • Modern buildings are typically constructed for an average lifecycle of 65-70 years while the average lifecycle of most other manufactured assets is less than nine years.

Why ADOPT a Circular Economy in the built environment?

Figure 2: Structural Waste in the Built Environment

The engineering and construction industry have been identified as the world’s largest consumer of raw materials, using over 3 billion tonnes of raw materials and accounting for nearly 50 per cent of global steel production. In Europe, the building sector accounts for approximately half of all extracted materials, half of total energy consumption, one third of water consumption and one third of waste generation. Figure 2 illustrates the enormity of the structural waste in the built environment in Europe.

With the increasing population, and accelerating urbanisation, there is growing pressure on preserving natural resources. The circular approach helps minimise the environmental footprint of the built environment sector by taking control of the waste, potentially extend lifecycle time of the products while reducing the lifecycle costs; it will also help avoiding construction delays and other consequences that are related to the volatility of commodity markets in procuring virgin materials.

Figure 3: Butterfly diagram of the technical & biological resource cycles for material flow

Circular Economy in the built environment

The Ellen Mc Arthur Foundation conceptualised the ReSOLVE framework and developed the butterfly system diagram shown in figure 3, to explain the Circular Economy based on the fundamental notion that “material flows can be divided into two interacting loops: the technical and biological resource cycles”.

Although most projects can exemplify certain elements of circularity, very few projects can incorporate all the elements to become completely circular.

Table 1: ReSOLVE Framework

The ReSOLVE framework offers all business types a methodology to incorporate circular strategies and growth initiatives. Its six elements, as listed in table 1, also apply to the build environment. They can be applied to products, buildings, localities, councils, cities, regions, or, in the wider context, even to the national economies.

Transitioning towards a Circular Economy in built the environment

While the circular economy paradigm offers a new alternative approach to economic growth, strong leadership with a coherent vision based on well-informed research is required to create a roadmap that can translate the high-level principles to sector specific processes of the built environment.
There is a need for close cooperation between policy makers and the industry, with scaling up of a cross-sector collaboration, particularly within the construction and infrastructure sector.

Some actions required to move towards a circular built environment system include:

  • introducing policy mechanisms to support the transition;
  • introducing financial mechanisms to support retrofit, refurbishment and renovation of old building stock, while investing in mixed-used buildings;
  • improving cross-sector communication and collaboration during design, delivery and operation stages of building;
  • recognising the enormous potential of smart urban planning;
  • focussing on production and usage of building materials that can be easily recycled, that consume lesser energy in the recycling process and have longer operational lifecycle;
  • increasing the public transit network and promoting transport-oriented development;
  • embracing new business models that facilitate keeping products and materials in cycle, by remanufacturing, refurbishing and recycling.

Definitions & guidance

Adoption of circular economy principles requires clarity of definitions to allow effective communication between various industry stakeholders and expansion of processes to guide adopters through the different implementation stages.

The EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy launched in December 2015, outlined a set of specific actions and generic obstacles to support the EU’s transition to a circular economy.

In 2017, the EU Commission has introduced Level(s), a voluntary framework of core sustainability indicators for office and residential buildings. Sustainable buildings that use less energy and materials are considered an important goal on the journey to circular economy adoption in Europe. The framework promotes life cycle thinking at a whole building level, with an aim to support the adopters from design stage through to operation and occupation of a building.

To assist companies in their transition towards the adoption of circular economy principles the voluntary standard BS 8001 has also been developed. It provides guidance on “how to implement the principles of the circular economy within an organization to create value through process, product, service or business model innovation”.

BS 8001 defines six principles of circular economy that to drive business activity and strategic thinking towards: innovation, stewardship, collaboration and value optimisation, while applying transparency and system thinking.

BSRIA is a partner of the UK GBC circular economy program, which in April 2019 launched a guidance document that aims to provide support to developers and the supply chain in specifying and delivering commercial buildings in line with circular economy principles.

In the Netherlands, Amsterdam is accelerating its transition to become one of the world’s first circular economy cities. Practical steps to aid this shift are proposed in works such as – ‘Towards the Amsterdam Circular Economy’ and the ‘City Circle Scan’.

Following guidance, policy at national and regional level is required to drive investment to support the transition to a circular economy and encourage stakeholder participation.

Flexibility and innovative thinking are also required to develop and establish new business models that will harvest commercial potential that circular economy offers.

Challenges & the path forward

The built environment sector is fragmented with multiple stakeholders, has long lead times, involve substantial investments and has a legacy of being risk averse. Some key challenges that can be foreseen in adopting a circular economy include: increase in capital costs, creation of standardised assets, occupant safety concerns with use of recycled materials, and gaps in continuity of ownership and control. Conversely, these same challenges also provide the greatest opportunities for the built environment sector in the circular economy.

While a complete shift towards a circular economy in the built environment will no doubt be lengthy, policy interventions, emergence of new innovative business models, innovative technology, definition of metrics, alongside a cultural shift towards preservation of natural resources are likely to keep fuelling the transition towards a circular economy in the coming years.

BSRIA is exploring the potential to transition towards circular economy approach from current industry practices in areas such as modular and off-site construction. While we deliver services including construction process improvement using Soft Landings, life cycle analysis, BIM/digital engineering advisory and maintenance strategies to reduce operational impacts, which are seen by BSRIA experts as aspects that will support adoption of the circular economy principles in building services.

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