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The circular economy: a new resource model for the built environment

Charlie Law   18 Sep 2014 Sourcing responsibly, Sustainable design, Resource efficiency

As I recently sat on the panel for a talk about the circular economy at RWM 2014, the resource and waste management solutions show, I reminded the audience of the intrinsic link between the waste industry and the construction industry. We shouldn’t be thinking of materials as waste but as resource. And with 260 million tonnes of materials used in construction every year, we need to think carefully about how we are using these resources to get the most value from their reuse.

In construction particularly, there has been a shift from sending all materials to landfill to segregating different materials for recycling and reuse. Currently about 10%, or 3½ million tonnes of construction waste, is sent to landfill, and approximately 88% is diverted from landfill through open loop ‘recycling’. Of the 88% diverted from landfill from construction sites, up to half is ‘recycled’ into Refuse Derived Fuel for energy production, and much of what is left is being down-cycled, for example into low grade aggregates. So all the work and energy we have put into manufacturing a product ends up going up in smoke or being used as fill in the ground. Resource is no longer sent to landfill, but it’s not reused in the same capacity, which means it’s losing its value. We are still losing too much resource from the ‘recycling’ cycle.

The only construction company to be a member of the Ellen MacArthur CE100, we propose a new way of thinking about resource – the circular economy. The circular economy model has two nutrient cycles, Biological and Technical. Most construction materials will currently fall within the Technical Nutrients cycle, but some, such as engineered timber, may cross over into both. The model works by trying to get as much of the resource back via the inner circles, i.e. maintain and reuse rather than recycle, in a similar way to the waste hierarchy. A number of companies have started to implement more circular products such as Desso carpet tiles, Armstrong ceilings, DOW Insulation, and Herman Miller furniture. But how could we make this work for a whole building?

Well, we need to start off with a production cycle which does not use fossil fuels, and move to renewable resources. Designers then need to ‘design for deconstruction’ as we want to be able to dismantle the product to recover the materials at a later stage. Resource efficiency measures are then used to reduce the amount of raw materials, and to reduce waste during the production cycles, but any waste that is produced is diverted back into the production loop.


This is where we need a significant change to the business model. How do we ensure that the materials in products supplied to the customer can be recovered from them when they are no longer required?

Rather than selling the customer a product and walking away, we should be looking at providing them with a service contract. So for example Philips, as a provider of lighting, will provide light or lux, and as part of its service contract to provide light, they will provide the light fitting, which the client uses, with a type of material passport to enable it to be tracked over its lifetime. If the light fitting breaks down, Philips repair it (by replacing the bulb, part of the electronics, or the whole fitting), to continue its use for as long as practicable. When light is no longer required, they take back the light fitting for remanufacture.

But how do we get that product back to the manufacturer? It is this end of life materials collection that I believe is where the waste industry, with its local logistics network, is best placed to provide a solution.





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