Circular Economy: The Cornerstone of Sustainability

With the rapid growth in waste generated by production a new, sustainable approach is needed. In this article Conall Boland and Warren Phelan discuss the need for the adoption of a circular economic model throughout the build cycle of a product and just how vital this is.

Over the last 150 years, our industrial economy has been dominated by a one-way model of production and consumption in which goods are manufactured from raw materials, sold, used, and then incinerated or discarded to landfills. This approach is unsustainable by its very nature. This linear structure is based on two large assumptions: boundless availability of resources (energy and raw materials) and a limitless regenerative capacity of the Earth.

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Source: Thibaut Wautelet: Exploring the role of independent retailers in the circular economy: a case study approach

By 2050, the population on Earth will achieve approximately 9 billion people, and unless we can find a way to decouple economic growth from the rate of consumption of natural resources, the economy will require about three times the resources we currently use. This trend will increase CO2 emissions and waste production and push us beyond the earth’s regenerative capacity. In the face of the global socioeconomic and environmental challenges, there is a fundamental need for an alternative to our current linear economic mode. We need to embrace the ‘Circular Economy’.

“The circular economy refers to an industrial economy that is restorative by intention; aims to rely on renewable energy; minimises, tracks, and eliminates the use of toxic chemicals; and eradicates waste through careful design.” (Ellen MacArthur Foundation)

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The circular economy approach will use less resources and energy, while at the same time being more carbon efficient and maximising waste reduction. It means designing out waste from the beginning, rather than relying solely on waste recycling at the end of the chain. 

Policies such as the European Green Deal (2019), the EU Circular Economy Plan (2020) and Ireland’s Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy (2020-2025) are all aiming for a climate neutral circular economy by 2050, halting biodiversity loss.  The circular economy will have net positive benefits in terms of GDP growth and job creation; applying ambitious circular economy measures in Europe can increase the EU's GDP by an additional 0.5% by 2030 creating around 700,000 new jobs.

According to Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal: “Today, our economy is still mostly linear, with only 12% of secondary materials and resources being brought back into the economy. Many products break down too easily, cannot be reused, repaired or recycled, or are made for single use only. There is a huge potential… to transform the way products are made and empower consumers to make sustainable choices for their own benefit and that of the environment.”


Built Environment Challenges

Extraction of resources for buildings and infrastructure – think about aggregates, cement, steel, aluminium, insulation products – all have a heavy toll on the planet.  Biodiversity loss is affected by the winning of resources for these products.  It is imperative now that we look at options throughout the project lifecycle to make the sustainable choices at every step. The choices we make now will determine how durable the asset is, how adaptable it is, and how easy this process will be.  Our challenge is to try to live more 'Lego-like lives' in which we break up, reconfigure and create new structures from old.  That will ease pressure on extraction of new resources.

Over the coming years the construction sector is going to play a major role in the circular economy. It is estimated that the construction industry accounts for approximately 60% materials use and one third of all waste arisings.  In RPS we are undertaking circular economy training and research to explore how our design teams can implement more and more circular solutions.  As well as doubling down on traditional efficient design measures, we are increasingly using digital design to drive resource efficiency.

Case Study – Designing Out Waste in the Sandyford Water Supply Scheme

Sandyford is a new business district in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains, home to international employers such as Microsoft.  RPS designed the high-level water supply scheme serving the area for Irish Water.  A number of deep excavations into coarse the characteristic yellow granite bedrock were required for pumping stations.  Rather than excavate and dispose of the rubble, RPS asked the architect to incorporate the granite boulders as the external walls for the utility structures in the schemes, including the prominent pumping station picture, adjacent to the local LUAS light rail platform. 

Aoife Carty, the RPS lead engineer explains:

“we developed a neat solution – there was no need to send truckloads of waste offsite, meaning we saved on transport costs and emissions, but more importantly we achieved an attractive and durable finish on the pumping station, using local resources”. 

Circular Economy - design approach

Circular thinking can and should be applied across the entire project life cycle, however the greatest opportunities are at the early stages i.e. to design out waste and carefully consider our design and material choices. According to “Circular Economy – Principles for Building Design” (EU Commission) There are five design principles that should be taken into account with every project:

  • Design out waste

The design can be rationalised in order to omit unnecessary features and use less resources.  We need to consider whether any elements of the existing site be reused, this can apply to existing features, demolition material, topography of the site or even the soil. 

  • Use Recycled materials

The materials that we choose can be of vital importance. If we can use materials with some recycled content or incorporate waste surplus from other projects or demolition works we will cut down hugely on waste and resource consumption.

  • Design for Disassembly / Deconstruction

If we improve the ease with which buildings can be deconstructed at the end of their useful life; by using materials that can be easily separated, we can increase reusability of materials and cut down resource requirements for demolition.

  • Modular design approach

We should be looking to implement a modular design approach wherever possible which would allow simple upgrade to services without the whole system becoming obsolete.  Off-site construction is a means to achieve low levels of waste.

  • Smart Renovation to avoid unnecessary demolition

It is possible to repurpose existing buildings or features to avoid creating waste.  With imagination and ingenuity, beautiful buildings can emerge from old structures.

There are numerous potential benefits with the transition to a circular economy including material cost savings, reduced price volatility, improved security of supply, employment creation, as well as reduced environmental pressures and impacts.  Circular economy thinking is long term planning. It must cut across all phases of project development, from design to delivery and use.  Early adoption is vital, to ensure a sustainable outcome.

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