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Last edited 24 Mar 2021
International trends and the circular economy
The circular economy is increasingly reported in the news and has long had a compelling case to be on the international agenda due to the urgency to respond to climate change and reduce carbon emissions.
There are many cases of active programmes but to give a few examples:
- The Industrial Strategy white paper came out in November 2017 and outlined the UK’s commitment to a circular economy as part of its clean growth strategy.
- The EU’s 2018 Circular Economy Package comprises an ambitious agenda to reduce plastic waste and has devised a programme of introducing circular economy projects overseas to countries such as India, Japan and Indonesia.
- The World Economic Forum in conjunction with the renowned Ellen MacArthur Foundation has developed an international acceleration programme for businesses to embrace circular economy concepts.
What is the relevance of the circular economy for those in the construction industry? It is not a new subject: the earlier work of William McDonough and Michael Braungart and their Cradle to Cradle Design Framework was a forerunner along with Dame Ellen MacArthur’s original concept of ‘designing out waste’.
David Chesire, in his book 'Building Revolutions Applying the Circular Economy To The Built Environment' discusses the rationale for their ideas. Essentially, both concepts espouse philosophies of total sustainability but the former promotes a 'reduce, reuse and recycle' philosophy adopting the ‘cradle to grave' manufacturing model from the Industrial Revolution.
Whilst the latter advocates purposely designing projects from the outset to minimise waste or choosing processes and materials that obviate waste in the first place, both these visions are neatly encapsulated in the analogy Chesire quotes of the cherry blossom tree that ‘makes copious amounts of blossoms and fruit without depleting the environment. It nourishes the soil, provides oxygen, absorbs carbon dioxide and provides habitats for many other organisms.’
How can we make ideas such as these more relevant to the international construction community? How do we nurture the environment and at the same time capitalise on this trend? BSRIA has been looking closely at this question and co-hosted an event in 23rd May 2018 to explore ideas.
- The circular economy has a simple mantra: make – use – return – make, and will impact every element of the built environment.
- Organisations need to have a holistic approach and be agile to change. Industry is not linear, we need to ‘make do’ with less resources.
- The future of architecture and construction will need to play a key role in the transition to a circular economy: we will need to think of buildings as resource generators (energy, materials services) in their own right.
- Our attitude to waste needs to change with zero waste to landfill an imperative for all, involving one hundred percent reuse and recycling.
- Organisations should ensure they are optimising the efficiency of their building services by making the best use of materials, water and energy for the duration of the installed equipment’s lifetime.
- We need to embrace more resource sharing schemes such as ‘swap shop’ office furniture and make the office ‘circular’ using remanufactured furniture; reusable containers; circular procurement and data.
- We should capitalise on battery energy storage and other renewable energy resources such as solar PV and wind turbines.
- Organisations should improve understanding of design approaches, especially passive design to help reduce the demand for building services. Also challenging design briefs and materials to be used on projects, selecting best practice design calculations and reusing equipment.
- We need to help overcome contractual, logistical, personnel and financial barriers by making better use of newer building methods and tools such as BIM, BREEAM new construction scheme and off-site construction.
- The construction industry needs to make changes happen through; legislation on resources, standards, economic incentives, clear national and international strategies, compelling business cases and client demand.
In conclusion, is the circular economy a glorified term for recycling or is this a whole new tool, the next step as it were, for organisations to gain competitive advantage? One interesting observation is that there are plenty of ideas for creating value through energy efficiency and sustainability initiatives but arguably the real issue is how do you change the culture of an organisation, how do you really make an organisation change the way they do things?
That is the key question for all of us to think about and is reflected in Dame Ellen MacArthur’s philosophy of the need for fundamental change in the way we think about building design.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- BSRIA articles on Designing Buildings Wiki.
- 5 things leaders can do to create a truly circular economy.
- Building Revolutions - review.
- Circular economy.
- Circular economy - transforming the worlds number one consumer of raw materials.
- Cradle to cradle product registry system.
- Impact of the sharing economy on construction craft labour and equipment markets.
- Sustainable materials.
- Waste management plan.
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