Imagine a world where nothing is wasted and resources are endlessly re-purposed.
From bamboo coffee cups to recycled paint, more companies are championing the idea of a circular economy in which discarded raw materials and products are repeatedly reused, producing no waste or pollution.
According to the United Nations, by 2050 we could need three times more resources than we currently use, due to population growth and unabated consumerism. Specifically, the US National Intelligence Council has stated that globally we will need 35 percent more food, 40 percent more water and 50 percent more energy by 2030 alone.
“In short, the ‘take, make, dispose’ model of production, also known as a linear economy, is forcing the planet into a state of disrepair,” says Sophie Walker, Head of UK Sustainability, JLL. “We inherently live beyond our means and as a result, have seen pressures on resources mount and the potential for irreversible environmental changes grow.”
Taking a fresh approach
In recent times the concept of a circular approach has gathered momentum as an attractive and viable way of generating economic growth and prosperity for people and planet. “The shift to the regenerative circular concept we are seeing is taking place because world governments and businesses have realized that increasing global competition has made access to resources, at affordable prices, an increasingly challenging proposition,” says Walker. “They have also realized that the environmental risks are too severe to continue down the ‘linear’ path.”
And the potential benefits of applying circular principles to domestic economies and businesses are mammoth. The European Commission states that it could bring an estimated net saving of £523 billion to European businesses. In London, net benefits of a least £7 billion per annum along with 12,000 new jobs could be obtained by 2036 by applying circular activities across a variety of sectors according to The London Waste and Recycling Board.
Big companies such as Apple, Unilever, Renault and Google are already taken action to embrace circular solutions. In the fashion world, H&M aims to become 100 percent circular, helped by its in-store garment-collection program and polyester fashion line made from reprocessed PET bottles.Since adopting a circular mindset, professional services firm PwC has saved almost £25 million by cutting paper and energy consumption through measures such as using cooking fat from its canteens and other kitchens to fuel its offices and remanufacturing office furniture where possible. Its cut-throat examination of numerous waste streams helped it achieve zero-waste-to-landfill status in 2012.
The real estate impact
Can the same circular principles work for buildings? Walker thinks so: “In my opinion the answer is yes. The UK building sector utilises over 400 million tonnes of material a year and generates a third of all our waste which comes at great cost, not only to the planet but also to our pockets. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Durable, re-usable components that can be easily put together, taken apart and accessed for repair or replacement can make all the difference. This allows us to adapt to society’s ever-changing needs by extending the life and value of our buildings.”
She points to modular construction, where homes are built in a factory environment using state of the art methods and materials, as an antidote for reducing waste and improving speed and affordability of new builds in the UK housing sector. For example, Legal & General has just built its first modular housing prototype outside its Selby factory in Yorkshire.
Elsewhere, companies are turning to less established materials to build with. Lendlease is a supporter of Cross Laminated Timber (CLT), a structural two-way spanning timber panel which has a low ecological footprint. It is faster and less labour-intensive to construct than conventional materials so much so, that the first 10-storey apartment building made with CLT took five skilled workers just 10 weeks to build. In what it calls “the latest example of high-performance workplaces, setting new benchmarks in environmentally sustainable building practices,” Lendlease is using CLT to erect the tallest and largest engineered timber office building by gross floor area in the world in Brisbane, Australia.
Why the future is circular
“Circular thinking really is gaining traction in the property sector,” Walker explains. “There are firms out there building entirely with circular economy principles.” The aptly named Circular Building was one of the first buildings in the UK built to satisfy these values, in which all parts were intended to be used to their full potential and to the duration of their life cycle.
“Another example is the Park 20|20 office development in Amsterdam which embraces a circular-economy approach by creating closed cycles for materials, energy, waste, and water, with everything having the potential to be composted or recycled back into industry,” she adds.
As circular thinking catches on, the need to move towards a new model is no longer in doubt nor are the potential economic opportunities. “Whether it’s property, retail or consumer goods, businesses are realising that big cost savings can be made from being socially and environmentally responsible and efficient,” says Walker.
To recycle the phrase Mark Farmer used in his assessment of the British construction sector: “the choice is simple, modernize or die.”