Breaking barriers: How to build a circular economy fit for the future

Two weeks ago, I was sat on the Leaders Stage at the edie Live exhibition in Birmingham, chairing a session on 'new business models'.

Breaking barriers: How to build a circular economy fit for the future

Speaking in that session was Daniel O’Connor, the founder and proudly self-appointed ‘head of customer happiness’ of Warp-It.

After an inspiring presentation about how his innovative furniture re-use network is driving a resource revolution in businesses throughout the UK, I began the audience Q&A with a question of my own.

“What one industry do you think has the most potential to make the shift to a circular economy?” I asked.

His answer was immediate: “Construction.”

Listeners of edie’s inaugural ‘Sustainable Business Covered’ podcast will note that the edie Live stages were rife with big construction firms – whether it was Carillion’s David Picton discussing his group’s ‘sustainability=profitability’ ethos; Interserve’s Tim Haywood revealing his secrets to success for securing investment; or AECOM’s Ant Wilson analysing the impacts of green policy on the sector’s transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient model.


So there is clearly a will. But is there really a way for the construction industry to take a giant leap towards a circular economy? Is it really possible for the building of all new homes and offices, the development of new transport infrastructure and the expansion of retail parks and football stadiums to be completely closed-loop?

It certainly won’t be without its challenges. And top of the list is the vast amount of materials that this industry uses. According to WRAP, the construction and operation of the built environment accounts for more than 60% of UK materials consumption and one third of all waste. Demolition waste represents the largest waste stream in many countries across the globe. Greater effort will therefore be needed to record data on materials that have been used, design out materials that can’t be re-used, and create new markets for previously-used materials.

But there are solutions. And top of the list is collaboration. As the UK Green Building Council’s sustainability officer Mark Edwards said at a construction event hosted by AECOM in London last Thursday: “Collaboration is key.

“How can we turn resources from the construction industry into input for other industries? And how can we use their waste? All of these things come down to behaviour change. I don’t think we need revolution, I think we just we need a large, evolutionary jump.”


Perhaps, then, O’Connor’s Warp-It model offers up part of the answer. Construction giants should be prepared to “look over the wall at neighbouring projects” – as Edwards puts it – and give away or loan resources to other organisations, reducing waste disposal and purchasing costs for both parties in the process.

And perhaps a combined servitisation and remanufacture approach would complete the circular economy jigsaw. As BAM’s former head of environmental management Charlie Law previously wrote in a great blog post about the subject: “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.”

Leap of faith

It is here that the construction industry would therefore need to be thinking about ‘assembly for disassembly’, and using a modular-based approach to design – as adopted by carmakers - which will allow components to be taken apart and re-used or returned back to the supply chain or sold onto a new end-user – take BAM’s Brummen Town Hall project in the Netherlands – a country far ahead of the UK in this area - as a living example of such a model.

Construction firms would also need to be willing to collaborate with the waste sector and logistics businesses to effectively ‘close the loop’ and bring products or components back to the manufacturer – a value network that could be beneficial to all actors.

So there is a will, and there is a way towards a circular economy for the construction industry.

Also sitting on that edie Live stage two weeks ago was WRAP’s outgoing chief executive Liz Goodwin, who has previously spoken about the requirement for firms large and small “to do something extraordinary in the ordinary course of doing business”.

Britain’s builders need to do exactly that, by taking a circular leap of faith.

edie's Resource Revolution Conference

Industrial applications of the circular economy is a central focus of the edie Resource Revolution Conference.

Taking place on the July 5, the edie Resource Revolution Conference provides resource management, sustainability, waste, product, supply chain and design professionals with tools they need to rethink their approach to resource use and waste outputs, drive organisational efficiencies, behaviour change and profitability, and effect a revolution in their company’s sustainability credentials.

You can view the agenda of the conference here and register to attend here.

Luke Nicholls

Topics: New business models
Tags: behaviour change | Circular economy | Data | edie Live | environmental management | football | green policy | Infrastructure | low carbon | new business models | resource management | resource revolution | retail | Servitisation | supply chain | sustainable business | sustainable business covered | transport | WRAP
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