There has been a growing buzz around the concept of a circular economy and how it can reduce the environmental footprint of projects and products. It’s not just about less waste going to recycling or landfill, it is also a way of reimagining supply chains and extending the lifetime of every element in a building.
One of the first things to understand about circular economy is that it isn’t just an eco-label. As Director and Co-Founder of Ewaste Watch Institute John Gertsakis explains, the true circular economy requires designing out waste and pollution from the outset.
“By prolonging the life, value and utility of products, components and materials, we can move beyond recycling, and give serious attention to durability, reuse and repair, refurbishment and remanufacturing,” Gertsakis says.
“Design is a key tool in achieving circular outcomes, so principles that contribute towards extended product life and durability, waste avoidance and innovative product-service models such as leasing, sharing and dematerialisation are obvious outcomes.”
It’s a similar principle to using a hire supplier for scaffolding, plant, or a complete works package, for instance, subcontracting plumbers, carpenters or formwork trades.
The added element with the circular economy is that it involves also closing material loops, Gertsakis says, It is also set on decarbonising through the use of renewable energy by manufacturers and others.
There is a Payoff
Gertsakis believes there are tangible benefits at the project level, the company level, and for the wider global society.
“Society is ready, willing and wanting a more sustainable future,” Gertsakis says. “This can translate into companies who better meet market demand and contribute responsible prosperity.
“Builders and trades will attract more progressive clients and customers with strong environmental ambitions if they can demonstrate tangible and specific services, expertise and processes that start to ‘design out waste and pollution’ from the outset.”
How do you know if a product is really circular?
Transparent and accurate data is essential, according to Peter Mulherin, Director of BuildFit, an emerging digital platform that combines both circularity and certification credentials of building materials.
The importance of detailed information has been highlighted in an academic paper Mulherin co-authored with RMIT experts. The soon-to-be-published paper argues that for circular economy business models to be viable, the building industry needs to move past reliance on self-reporting by manufacturers and others.
This dimension of third-party verification is one the industry is still grappling with in terms of product standards, code compliance and building performance.
Products Already Available
Circularity can also be verified is when it involves tangible products with visible supply chain processes. For example, Mulherin explains that a company like Egans Asset Management has created a circular model for office furniture and Fixtures.
It reclaims or procures used items, anything from carpet tiles to workstations, chairs or loose furniture. Suitable items are then refurbished and repaired before being sold or hired to clients, who include government departments, universities and corporates. It also hosts virtual storage facilities for multi-site entities, such as universities. It stores used or repaired items and catalogues them for a virtual warehouse the university procurement team can access to order items.
Items that cannot be reused, resold or refurbished are stripped back to raw material. Where possible, the materials are used to manufacture new furniture locally. The material that cannot be used in either of these processes is then recycled.
“Our process allows over 80 per cent landfill avoidance in the areas that we work, and we can do better,” EAM Managing Director Andrew Egan says. “We are currently working to improve our circular model by working with our customers to identify which materials allow circularity and which ones don’t.”
By eliminating non-circular material from an office, company, institution, city or even a country at the procurement level, a company like Egan’s can enable its clients to achieve up to 100 per cent landfill avoidance from their office furnishings asset list.
Other companies are using an initial upcycling process to develop a product with circularity. Integrated Recycling in Victoria, for instance, has developed a railway sleeper called Duratrack®. It is currently undergoing in-track testing following provisional approval for use by Metro Trains Melbourne and Queensland Rail.
Made from post-consumer and post-industrial plastic and polystyrene waste, Duratrack® replaces timber sleepers. At the end of their serviceable life, the sleepers are reusable or fully recyclable.
Plastic Forests in regional Victoria has won multiple awards for its circular economy products. It uses the otherwise non-recyclable plastic waste from industries including food processing, hospitality and agriculture to turn into useful products, such as cable covers, garden edging, tree guards, wheel stops and air conditioning and pump unit mounting blocks.
Managing Director David Hodge says the company is expanding both in its materials sourcing and in its product range and sales. Recently, for example, it was contracted to provide 70km of underground cable cover manufactured from contaminated plastic films for a solar farm at Wangaratta.
The products might be a small part of a project, but the impact of using them is quite significant, Hodge said. He gave an example of replacing imported virgin PVC mounting blocks for air conditioning units across a major multi-residential project with Plastic Forests’ upcycled product. This reduces virgin PVC entering the Australian market, shortens the supply chain and corresponding transport emissions, and keeps material out of the landfill.
The company is currently working with a leading building products manufacturer to create a supply chain. It is planning to use waste building product films to manufacture products specifically for the building industry—a closed-loop, circular approach.
“The journey starts with a single step,” says Hodge.
Ultimately, a circular economy is about “intervening across the supply chain to implement step-change measures. It’s also about by prevention rather than cure. This means that investment upfront is more likely to deliver savings and other positive outcomes downstream that go beyond conventional environmental management and waste minimisation,” says Gertsakis.