The circular economy is a concept that has long been talked about by governments, by businesses, and by charities as a way of working to create a more sustainable future. The definitions of a what a circular economy looks like vary, but what is clear is that at the very heart of the concept is a shift from a linear model of production and consumption to a more circular system. Industries providing goods to the market have been at the forefront of reaping the benefits of circular thinking by designing products made of modules that can be reused or recycled, or by transforming their business models and letting products or offering outputs from their products instead of selling them directly. Service industries have been slower, but new and existing technologies are enabling them to make circular ideas applicable to their businesses.
The political discourse behind the circular economy is growing, and both the EU and the UK have promoted initiatives, and in some cases binding targets, for the implementation of circular business models, moving beyond recycling into an innovative business environment. Nevertheless, what is clear in the construction industry is that the circular economy is very much grounded in the language and principles of waste management and are often focused on the recycling industry only. What is seriously needed is a redefined understanding of how we can holistically apply the principles of the circular economy to the construction industry, and this is what this paper aims to do, to provoke a fresh view on how and why the infrastructure sector can embrace principles of the circular economy and how this can become a blueprint for society more generally.
“Sustainability and Productivity are synonyms in many evident aspects, as well as offering opportunities for innovation in areas where this alignment is less clear.
For example, one of the facets of the sustainability mantra is the aim to produce more with less, which is also a good definition of productivity. The strong connections between the two continue to appear when we consider other traditional aspects of sustainability, such as minimisation of waste production and their reuse in processes.
However, even when we see the risks that an increase in productivity could imply through cutting corners on safety or environmental best practices, sustainability reminds us that there are always a more effective alternative to achieving the highest standards in all of these areas. All it takes is a bit of ingenuity and perseverance”
– Davide Stronati, Global Sustainability Leader, Mott MacDonald
The current status and the opportunity
The EU estimates that using resources more efficiently will also bring new growth and job opportunities. Better eco-design, waste prevention and reuse can bring net savings for EU businesses of up to EUR 600 billion, while also reducing total annual greenhouse gas emissions. Additional measures to increase resource productivity by 30% by 2030 could boost GDP by nearly 1%, while creating 2 million additional jobs (European Parliament press release, June 2015).
Both the EU and the UK have outlined significant reasons for embracing the concept around waste management. If the scope of the concept was to be broadened, what kind of opportunities could be opened for the infrastructure sector? How can we shift from waste management 2.0 to a truly circular economy realised for this industry?
The key to understanding how infrastructure can capitalise on the circular economy is by understanding what a future sustainable society will, and must, look like.
There seems to be an obsession among the circular economy narrative around the make-take- dispose linear model of production. Whilst this sets out well the current issues around waste management it fails to recognise the intricacies and nuances that are impacting the ways in which society are challenging the status quo. When you think about a city or urban space now and what it will look like in the future, it not only conjures images of a waste free space but it is one where car ownership is obsolete, buildings generate their own power, offices, homes, and social spaces are blurred and all underpinned by a truly sustainable infrastructure.
The thinking around the circular economy needs to be about how we can imagine, articulate, and deliver the infrastructure needed to support the transition to a truly circular economy and a truly circular civic space. As such we believe that there needs to be a circular economy that is defined not just for the whole life of assets but that we split this across the infrastructure lifecycle, thus creating distinct yet complimentary circular economies. So, what does this mean and what does this look when we consider the whole infrastructure asset lifecycle and the subsequent lifecycles?
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