Steve Cook and Andrew Kinsey put the case for a circular economy, where products and resources are produced and used on a cradle-to-grave basis.
Construction is the biggest consumer of natural resources in the UK, using 400m tonnes of material every year. However, with decreasing availability in our planet’s finite natural resources, the concept of a circular rather than linear economy has gained increasing prominence in the last few years.
This means instead of the traditional linear approach of “take, make, dispose” – where raw materials are extracted from the natural environment, used on building projects and ultimately thrown away – we manage our resources more carefully. We can’t go on thinking there will always be an endless supply of natural resources for us to use.
The circular economy is a restorative approach with design and innovation at the core, so that products and materials are designed to have a positive impact on the environment, and can be easily returned and disassembled for reuse, remanufacturing or recycling at the end of use.
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Over recent years, UK construction has made good progress on reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill. This has been driven by the landfill tax and changing business practices within the industry. Most people are aware of the waste hierarchy concept of “reduce, reuse, recycle”, but the fact is the industry still creates vast quantities of waste. Moving towards a circular economy would take the waste debate to a new dimension – no longer just thinking about how to manage materials at the end of their use, but how they are used and managed throughout the whole of their life-cycle.
The circular economy offers tremendous opportunities – whether that is in the better management of resources, or in developing new business models. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has estimated that US$1 trillion a year could be generated for the global economy by 2025 if companies focused on building circular supply chains to increase the rate of recycling, reuse and remanufacture.
In the UK we are seeing circularity in pockets – a good take-back scheme here, or supply chain initiative there – but it is not yet mainstream. That will require overcoming a number of practical challenges along with a fundamental change in attitudes.
"Moving towards a circular economy would take the waste debate to a new dimension."
A key issue is how buildings are designed and procured, and where in the value chain the materials used in construction actually sit. Contractors are often at the sharp end, trying to manage residual wastes from the construction process that were not avoided or designed out in the first place. Other challenges include:
- Lack of knowledge and awareness. The concept needs to become better understood among clients and suppliers to drive demand for and development of new products and business models. The circular economy is not business as usual and fears of the risks involved in investing in a new approach will need to be overcome.
- Bringing together the supply chain. There is a need for a more holistic approach across the supply chain, including designers and product manufacturers.
- Client and end user perceptions. Previously used, reclaimed or recycled materials may be perceived as inferior to “new” or virgin materials and may not offer the warranties considered the norm with new products.
By moving to a circular economy model, material resources will be valued differently throughout the lifecycle of a building. This approach is not new – the aviation sector has been selling flying hours instead of engines for the past 50 years. By doing so these organisations are no longer selling a product, they’re offering a service, retaining control of the resources throughout their lifecycle and adding value to their business and their customers.
Currently buildings which cannot be leased or sold are perceived to have little or no value. But with a rising global population and increasing pressure on resources, we will need to think differently about the value, recovery and reuse of resources from buildings. To leave a sustainable future legacy, and provide an increased future asset value for clients, designing for deconstruction needs to be an early consideration.
One step we can all take is to engage our colleagues, clients and suppliers in debate and dialogue about circular economy thinking. The UK Contractors Group is currently developing its approach to support and take forward this emerging initiative.
The UK Contractors Group has developed a freely available poster available to download from the UKCG website: www.ukcg.org.uk
Steve Cook is principal sustainable development manager, Willmott Dixon Re-Thinking and Andrew Kinsey is head of sustainability, construction, at Mace. Both are members of the UK Contractors Group Materials Task Group