Wood and the Circular Economy
The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) reported that 62% of total waste accumulated in the UK was down to construction, demolition and excavation. And the Circle Economy claims that global construction of housing and infrastructure has the largest resource footprint at 38.8 billion tonnes. These are difficult statistics for the construction industry, but they can be reversed.
 The circular economy
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines the circular economy as: “based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.”
Adapting to a circular way of thinking is imperative for the construction industry to reduce its negative environmental impact. A circular approach is the way forward to help reduce our current linear method which encourages waste. Circularity needs to be designed into construction projects to ensure it is the most sustainable route, using the most sustainable materials.
These are the sentiments of the latest Circularity Gap report from impact organisation, Circle Economy. Inspired by the annual Emissions Gap report by the UN Environment Programme, the Circularity Gap Report Initiative was founded in 2017. Since then, it has been tracking the global evolution of the circular economy and highlighting where progress can be made.
The report advocates for retrofitting existing housing stock and finding ways to extend the life of these homes. It explores alternative routes such as co-housing and modular design for new builds that embrace flexibility and multi-use. This reduces floor space so that fewer materials are needed, and a more flexible layout extends the life of the building as it adapts to meet the needs of its occupants.
Critical to making housing more circular is the choice of materials. The report champions low-carbon, natural and renewable materials such as wood, straw and hemp. Using these materials alongside designing for disassembly allows for greater recyclability and regenerative material use. This helps reduce emissions, ensures materials stay in use for longer, and at the end of life, materials can still be broken down and turned into something new.
- Material health;
- Material re-utilisation;
- Renewable energy and carbon management;
- Water stewardship, and
- Social fairness.
In 2017, the British Woodworking Federation did a feasibility study on cradle-to-cradle timber windows. The windows were awarded gold for material re-utilisation, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship and social fairness. Silver was awarded for material health, giving an overall 'silver' grading for timber windows. The only reason for not achieving Gold was that only 95% of the materials used were wood and preservatives. To get the top mark, 100% of the materials need to be assessed.
At the 2019 ASBP Awards, EcoCocon won the Product Innovation Award for its use of straw bale panels in a rural self-build. The panels were C2C Certified with a silver award, and the project was a first for using this particular system in the UK. What impressed judges most was “the combination of extremely high fabric efficiency (Passivhaus certification) achieved through the use of a range of low-impact, natural materials to create a comfortable, healthy environment.”
With the number of C2C Certified products rising, others have been inspired to raise awareness of this offering, cue the creation of Cradle to Cradle Marketplace. As a natural renewable building material, it is unsurprising there are already a number of timber C2C Certified products available for the built environment.
 Cradle to Cradle in practice
The Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Program is not only a certification scheme but a benchmark for design. It is not just the product’s ability to be regenerated that makes it attractive, it is the safety of the product too. As part of the certification process, all the components making up the product are tested against toxicity standards and any risks are identified. This extends to the supply chain too.
In a recent interview in Dezeen, Ikea’s head of circular design, Malin Nordin, announced its partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Nordin talked of the importance of embedding the circular message into its supply chain. "What we realised quite quickly is that IKEA being a circular company on its own is quite pointless. We are interdependent of other businesses."
Major housebuilder, Barratt Developments, announced two sustainability targets for its supply chain at its 2020 Supply Chain Conference to help reduce waste and reduce carbon emissions. It also recycles wood waste through social enterprise, Community Wood Recycling, and donated 790 tonnes in 2019. This was used in the community for uses such as DIY projects, biomass heating and woodchip.
It makes good business sense for anybody involved with designing, making or specifying products to look at the changes they need to make to ensure inclusion in these supply chains if they are to be future-proof and enable a circular economy.
 Building the UK’s circular economy
The Vision 2040 of the European Forest-Based Sector targets material collection rates of forest-based products at 90% and for their reuse and recycling to account for 70% of all recyclable material. This idea of a circular economy would store carbon and substitute more energy-intensive materials.
In the UK, the Green Building Council (UKGBC) is working with its members and the wider industry to develop practical guidance which will enable organisations working in the built environment to overcome the barriers to implementing circular economy principles.
In the timber industry, many companies are already recording environmental data to help prove a product’s credentials. The Lifecycle Database is based on generic wood products in the UK including structural products, panel products, solid timber products and windows. The data collected is based on Lifecycle Assessments (LCA) and Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs).
The LCA covers cradle to grave, including forestry, harvesting, transportation, processing and manufacturing, through to the various end of life options. Measuring the manufacturing of products in this way not only provides traceability but provides insight into the performance of the product too.
A key element to making the circular economy work is circular design. The Circular Design Guide offers advice and an abundance of free resources to encourage discussions around the concept. Architects often face difficulties in persuading clients to go with an option that is not the norm. The Circular Design Guide offers advice on how to have this conversation with a client and educate them on why circular design is so important.
Guidance is offered on material choice including ‘materials journey mapping’. Created in partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it encourages those involved to think about the parts and materials, processing, production, sourcing, and other product ‘ingredients.’
 Wooden consumables
One of the key points from the 2021 Circularity Gap report is the damaging effects of take-make-waste practices. Consumables such as clothing and furniture play a huge role in unnecessary waste. Fortunately, consumables such as these can often be reused or recycled. It all depends on the materials they are created from.
Focusing on furniture, the report suggests, as with housing, the materials used should be low-carbon, natural, renewable and locally sourced where possible. The report encourages a design for disassembly approach, with options for customisation and for replacement parts to be easily sourced. It champions the use of wood products and by-products, focusing on responsibly sourced timber furniture.
Recycled timber can also be used for fencing, decking, cladding and timber garden structures. It is a great way to incorporate circular design into outdoor spaces too. To ensure the longevity of the use of timber outdoors, it is imperative to understand the need for appropriate treatment.
In a bid to improve knowledge in this area, the Wood Protection Association (WPA) has partnered with the Timber Trade Federation (TTF) and the Timber Decking & Cladding Association (TDCA). A campaign targeting merchants launched in April 2021 to ensure they are providing accurate and specific information to customers.
One wood product that has proven its ability to be reused or recycled is the wooden pallet. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the pallet and packaging industry has been an essential industry, as pallets are used primarily to transport goods safely. They have been instrumental in transporting necessities across the country, and are currently assisting with the transportation of the COVID-19 vaccine.
A champion of circularity, timber pallets can be repaired several times for reuse in the packaging industry, giving them several 'lives' as a pallet. Additionally, pallets have also been a popular choice for home projects. Repurposed pallets are ideal for those who like a rustic or industrial touch for their home, and creative lockdown projects have seen pallets repurposed into desks, bars, coffee tables, sheds and even an outdoor cinema.
Once wooden pallets do come to the end of their life, after being reused and repaired or repurposed, they can be recycled into chipboard, extending the life of the timber again. They are a true example of a circular product.
Wood befits the ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ movement. It also helps to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere thus contributing to the slowing down of climate change as wood captures and stores carbon. It is a cost-free solution to carbon capture. Wood can also be used to offset sectors of the economy that cannot become carbon neutral, so it is beneficial to use this natural and renewable material instead of other materials.
Studies have shown wood products can improve emotional state, reduce blood pressure, heart rate and stress and improve sleep patterns. Wood interiors also add warmth and character. Therefore, it is often used in biophilic design, a way of bringing the outdoors in.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- 5 things leaders can do to create a truly circular economy.
- A social, circular economy.
- BREEAM Construction waste management.
- Building Revolutions - review.
- Circular economy - transforming the worlds number one consumer of raw materials.
- Construction waste.
- Cradle to cradle product registry system.
- Design for deconstruction.
- End of life potential.
- Facts about forestry.
- Green supply chain management.
- Life cycle.
- Mean lean green.
- Recyclable construction materials.
- Reduce, reuse, recycle.
- Regenerative design.
- Renewable energy.
- Sustainable materials.
- Waste management plan.
 External references
- British Woodworking Federation feasibility study
- C2C Certified
- Circularity Gap Report for 2019
- Cradle to Cradle Certified (C2C Certified)
- Cradle to Cradle Marketplace
- Green Building Council (UKGBC) practical guidance
- Product Innovation Award.
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