Embracing the Circular Economy: How to Realise a Circular Transition in the Construction Industry
World Overshoot Day, observed on the 2nd of August, brings attention to the concept of the Circular Economy, which is closely tied to sustainability and finds particular significance in sustainable construction. But what exactly is the Circular Economy, and why does it play a crucial role in sustainable development?
What is The Circular Model
The circular economy is a model of production and consumption which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible. In this way, the life cycle of products is extended. In practice, it implies reducing waste to a minimum.
The circular economy is a biomimetic model meant to emulate Earth’s biological systems. Our planet’s ecosystems do not waste materials. In living systems, materials flow and all waste produced by one species is reused by another in perpetuity. It is often referred to as a closed loop or cradle-to-cradle because, in a scenario where a system is perfectly circular and everything is reused, no new material input is required.
The Current Linear Model
Throughout history, the standard model for societies has operated a linear economy. In a linear model (otherwise referred to as cradle to grave), raw materials are extracted, used for goods and services and then once they have served their purpose, they are discarded. This model is unsustainable, inefficient and causes extensive damage to the environment at every stage of the cycle.
Introducing Biocapacity and Ecological Footprint
Transforming the economy from linear to circular is crucial to mitigating climate change. Evaluating global resource capacity and consumption is important for tracking the progress of sustainable reform and assessing the urgency of the situation.
How do we measure the Earth’s resource capacity and human consumption? This is done through biocapacity and ecological footprint, two estimated metrics created by the Global Footprint Network.
Biocapacity measures the capacity for resource production and material absorption/filtering of a land or ocean area (known as its biological productivity). The earth’s biocapacity is estimated as the number of hectares of average productivity land or ocean (Global hectares/gha) that would be required to produce the sum of all its resources.
An ecological footprint measures the resource consumption of any person, company or country and estimates the equivalent gha it would take to produce that quantity of resources.
The two metrics are then compared to each other to calculate an ecological deficit or surplus. If a country has more biocapacity than ecological footprint, then there is a surplus. If a country has less biocapacity than ecological footprint, then there is a deficit. A surplus is indicative of sustainable consumption, whilst a deficit is unsustainable.
The Growing Ecological Deficit
Currently, the average person on this planet has an ecological footprint of 2.58 gha; however, the earth only has the biocapacity to provide 1.51 Gha per person at an absolute maximum. Even with a sustained global ecological footprint of 1.51 gha/person, disastrous losses to biodiversity would still occur. To realistically maintain coexistence with wildlife, the Gha per person would need to be significantly below the 1.5 threshold. Concerningly this deficit is even larger in most developed countries with the UK’s footprint reaching 3.87 gha/person and some countries exceeding 12 gha/person.
To put it another way, we are consuming 1.71 times what the Earth can provide. For our planet to feasibly sustain our consumption habits, the world needs to consume over 40% less resources than it is currently.
An Alarming Situation
The Global population is rising rapidly. It is predicted to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.6 billion by 2050 and is expected to continue rising until at least 2100. Even if the average consumption level declines, the number of people consuming resources will rise. Combine a rising population with a declining biocapacity and an already unsustainable ecological deficit and we are left fighting a battle on two fronts in which our division of resources will continue to be overstretched.
The ecological deficit is inextricably tied to emissions production and climate change. The 1.5 ℃ target set at the Paris Agreement to avoid catastrophic socioeconomic and environmental damage is estimated to require a 45% emissions reduction on 2010 levels by the year 2030. In 2023 the projected emissions output is an alarming +10% on 2010 levels. Far from what is needed to achieve this target.
To operate sustainably, the ecological deficit must be reduced and “closing the loop” is an indispensable part of this.
Take: natural resources are extracted from the environment to produce raw materials. This process often leads to significant environmental damage and the depletion of finite resources. Some of the negative impacts include:
Deforestation: Trees are cut down for wood and paper products, leading to habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, and contributing to climate change through reduced carbon sequestration.
Mining: Extracting minerals and metals requires extensive excavation, leading to soil erosion, water pollution, and the destruction of landscapes. It can also lead to the release of harmful chemicals and heavy metals into the environment.
Fossil Fuel Extraction: The extraction of oil, gas, and coal contributes to air and water pollution, habitat destruction, and greenhouse gas emissions, driving climate change.
Make: raw materials are transformed into products through manufacturing processes. This step also has numerous negative consequences:
Energy Consumption: Manufacturing industries are often energy-intensive, relying on fossil fuels that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbate climate change.
Water Use and Pollution: Manufacturing processes can consume large amounts of water and release pollutants into water bodies, harming aquatic ecosystems and human health.
Waste Generation: Manufacturing generates significant amounts of waste, including chemical byproducts, packaging materials, and unused materials, which often end up in landfills or pollute the environment.
Use: consumers and businesses utilize products. This phase also has environmental and social impacts:
Resource Depletion: The continuous demand for new products and high consumption rates depletes resources faster than they can regenerate, putting a strain on the environment.
Energy Use: Products require energy for operation, and the reliance on fossil fuels for energy contributes to carbon emissions and climate change.
Planned Obsolescence: Some industries design products with a limited lifespan, encouraging frequent replacements, which leads to increased waste and resource consumption.
Waste: products reach the end of their life cycle and are discarded. This step causes various negative effects:
Toxic Waste: Many products contain hazardous materials that can leach into the environment when improperly disposed of, posing risks to human health and ecosystems.
Loss of Value: Materials that could be recovered and reused are often discarded, leading to unnecessary resource depletion and missed opportunities for recycling and circular economy practices.
Landfill Overflow: The linear economy’s high waste generation fills up landfills quickly, contributing to soil and water pollution and emitting methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Minimal Take: Reduced extraction of natural resources, minimizing the environmental impact associated with resource acquisition:
Resource Efficiency: Encourage industries to use fewer raw materials while maintaining or even increasing productivity. This reduces the overall demand for resource extraction.
Recycling and Reuse: incorporating more recycled materials and encouraging the reuse of products and components, reduces the need for virgin resources, which helps preserve ecosystems and reduces the environmental impacts associated with extraction.
Sustainable Sourcing: Prioritizing sourcing materials from sustainable and renewable sources, such as responsibly managed forests and other regenerative resources, thus reducing the negative impact on the environment.
Make: Reused and recycled materials are transformed into products with the aim to minimize waste and pollution associated with manufacturing processes:
Lean Production: Refining production processes, optimizing resource use, reducing energy consumption, and minimizing waste generation.
Product Design for Longevity: Products are designed to be durable, repairable, and upgradable, extending their lifespan and reducing the need for frequent replacements.
Remanufacturing and Refurbishment: increased investment in remanufacturing and refurbishment to bring used products back to a high-quality condition, reducing the demand for new products and their associated environmental impacts.
Use: The circular economy focuses on maximizing the value derived from products and minimizing their environmental footprint during their operational life:
Product as a Service: Offer products as services to encourage shared ownership and the optimization of product use. This reduces overall consumption and waste.
Energy Efficiency: Circular products are designed to be energy-efficient, reducing the GHG emissions associated with their use.
Maintenance and Repair: Encouraging maintenance and repair of products ensures they remain functional for a more extended period, reducing the demand for new products and minimizing resource consumption.
Minimal Waste: In the circular economy, the “waste” phase is transformed into an opportunity to recover value from materials and products:
Recycling and Material Recovery: prioritize recycling and material recovery to extract valuable resources from products at the end of their life cycle, reducing the need for new raw materials.
Upcycling: Instead of downcycling materials into lower-value products, the circular economy promotes upcycling, where materials are transformed into higher-value products, reducing waste and resource consumption.
Zero Waste Goals: Eliminate or minimize waste sent to landfills or incineration through better design, material selection, and waste management practices.
Realising a Circular Transition in the Construction Industry
Realistically a transition to a circular economy will take time as systems adapt to reuse our waste and technology and innovation improvements help to do so more efficiently. A collective and collaborative effort from all industries is required to make this transition as fast as possible and many governments including the European Parliament are advocating for this. These efforts must work on closing the loop of our production and consumption model as much as possible without compromising economic, social or environmental integrity.
Accounting for a substantial amount of waste generation and resource consumption, the construction industry has one of the largest roles of any industry in contributing to this transition. The cement industry alone accounts for 8% of global GHG emissions.
There has already been overwhelming industry support with 98% of organisations stating that sustainability is fundamental to their business operations. Unfortunately, there is still a substantial climate action gap as only 50% of organisations have embedded net zero buildings into their 2030 strategy.
Despite the industry moving in the right direction and an overall increase in sustainable commitments and measures, these steps are insufficient to achieve net zero and sustainable development goals in line with the 1.5 ℃ target.
Adapting and changing traditional construction practices to realign with sustainable targets and a circular economy is still possible and there are many ways this can be done:
- Design for Disassembly and Reuse: Incorporate principles of modular and prefabricated construction, enabling buildings and components to be easily disassembled and reused in future projects. Design buildings with demountable connections to facilitate easy dismantling and material salvaging.
- Use Recycled and Low-Impact Materials: Prioritize the use of recycled and reclaimed materials in construction projects. Utilize materials with low environmental impact, such as sustainable timber, recycled concrete, and non-toxic paints and finishes.
- Implement Waste Management Strategies: Develop comprehensive waste management plans to minimize waste generation during construction. Reuse and recycle construction waste whenever possible and collaborate with local recycling facilities to ensure proper handling.
- Adopt Reuse and Remanufacturing Practices: Explore opportunities to reuse construction components, such as doors, windows, and fixtures, from deconstructed buildings. Engage in remanufacturing processes to extend the life of certain building elements.
- Promote Retrofitting and Adaptive Reuse: Encourage retrofitting and adaptive reuse of existing buildings instead of demolishing and constructing new ones. This preserves valuable resources and maintains the character of older structures.
- Embrace Energy Efficiency: Design buildings with a focus on energy efficiency, utilizing renewable energy sources and energy-saving technologies to reduce environmental impact during operation.
- Encourage Building Longevity: Prioritize durable and long-lasting materials to increase the lifespan of buildings, reducing the need for frequent replacements.
- Facilitate Sharing and Rental Services: Consider incorporating sharing or rental services for construction equipment and machinery to optimize their usage and minimize idle periods.
- Create Circular Supply Chains: Collaborate with suppliers and contractors that follow circular economy principles, such as offering take-back programs for materials and products.
- Educate and Involve Stakeholders: Raise awareness among construction professionals, workers, and clients about the benefits of circular economy practices. Engage stakeholders in the decision-making process to implement circular solutions effectively.
- Explore Digital Technologies: Leverage Building Information Modelling (BIM) and other digital tools to optimize material use, reduce waste, and improve construction efficiency.
- Adopt Certification and Standards: Seek certifications such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) or BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) to demonstrate commitment to sustainability and circular economy principles.
By adopting these measures, the construction industry can significantly reduce its environmental impact and contribute to a more sustainable future. Implementing these circular economy practices not only benefits the environment but can also lead to cost savings, improved resource efficiency, and an enhanced reputation within the industry.
How Firstplanit Facilitates a Circular Transition
Impact Indicator profiles
Our impact indicator profiles and product impact indexes assess 18 different impact attributes that correspond to one or more Environmental, Social, Health and Monetary benefits to simplify complex building material choices. 8 of these indicators are directly related to product circularity so that you can choose the ideal material for your needs that aligns with your sustainable goals.
The Environmental Score reflects the impact of choosing this product on the environment. These impacts account for global issues such as atmospheric warming, natural resource depletion, waste accumulation, net freshwater usage, water and air pollution and building operational energy/water requirements.
- Rapidly Renewable: Products made from rapidly renewable materials contribute to circularity by reducing the dependency on non-renewable resources. These materials can be regrown or replenished relatively quickly, promoting sustainable production and reducing the depletion of finite resources.
- Recycled Content: Incorporating recycled content in products helps to divert waste from landfills and reuse materials that have already been extracted and processed. This reduces the demand for raw materials and minimizes the environmental impacts associated with extraction and manufacturing.
- Rapidly Degradable: Rapidly degradable products ensure that materials can be naturally broken down and reintegrated into the ecosystem relatively quickly. This prevents long-lasting waste and pollution, promoting a more regenerative approach to material use.
- Reclaimed: Reclaimed products are an excellent example of circularity as they extend the lifespan of materials and components by giving them a second life. By reusing products without extensive reprocessing, the circular economy reduces waste and conserves resources.
- Durable: Durable products play a crucial role in the circular economy as they have a longer lifespan and require fewer replacements. This extends the utility of materials and reduces the need for mass production and resource consumption.
- Versatile: Versatile products are adaptable and easy to repurpose or reuse in various applications. This reduces waste and enhances the potential for products to be employed in multiple life cycles.
- Locally Made: Locally made products reduce transportation-related emissions and support regional economies. Producing goods closer to the project site reduces the carbon footprint associated with logistics and fosters a more sustainable supply chain.
- End of Life Plan: Having a well-defined end-of-life plan ensures that products can be effectively collected, recycled, or refurbished at the end of their useful life. This helps close the loop by ensuring that materials are continually cycled back into new products or applications.
Material Flow Analysis
Our latest feature provides a Material Flow Analysis (MFA), quantifying all a project’s input and output product flows.
If an input flow material does not meet our recycled, reclaimed/reused or rapidly renewable criteria, it is considered virgin/non-renewable. Products that do not meet EOL, recyclability potential and rapidly degradable criteria for output flows are considered landfill waste streams.
After selecting the products for your project, our impact reports will provide you with a series of graphics displaying information vital to understanding the circularity of your project. Information will instantaneously adjust as you add and remove new products to a project.
Green Building rating systems
Firstplanit does the heavy lifting on data analytics and maps product attributes against relevant GBRS concepts. The analysis looks beyond standardized technical datasheets and EPDs checking compliance with GBRS criteria and thresholds.
This system aids specifiers in efficiently finding and comparing materials/products that comply with multiple GBRS while significantly reducing costs. It also expedites assessments and checks conducted by third-party GBRS assessors. As a result, costs and time are saved at various stages throughout a project’s development process.
As the ecological deficit increases and pressure rises on organisations to increase measures toward circularity, the services offered by Firstplanit are becoming more and more needed. The adoption of the new European sustainable reporting standards, effective at the start of the 2024 fiscal year, will accelerate these pressures drastically. Many organisations will struggle to maintain positive reputations and keep up with reporting standards as the market evolves. Get ahead of the curve by integrating services like Firstplanit into your business.