What does the Circular Economy mean for the built environment?

Over the coming years the construction sector is going to play a major role in the circular economy. But, having been dominated by a one-way, linear model of production and consumption for so long, what does the transition to a circular approach mean for the built environment? 

What is 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). 

Over the last 150 years, our industrial economy has followed a linear approach to the consumption and use of resources where goods are manufactured from raw materials, sold, used, and then incinerated or discarded to landfills. However, as we move towards a sustainable and resilient future, we need to embrace a new approach if we are to reduce the volume of resources we use and drive down our waste and carbon emissions. We need to adopt the circular economy model throughout the build cycle.  

Why do we need a Circular Economy?

By 2050, the population on Earth will reach 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.

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.”

Circular Economy in the Built Environment

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.

Circular Economy benefits

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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Headshot of Conall Boland.

Conall Boland

Sustainability - Senior Consultant T: +353 1 488 2900 Email
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Dublin - West Pier | Ireland

Kester Purslow

Senior Director – Architecture T: +44 (0) 1636 605 700 Email
Newark | UK

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