The Circular Economy: Part One

Part one of a two-part series: An introduction to the core principles of the circular economy, how they relate to the design and construction industries, and why they are imperative.

By Rob Atkinson | Senior Project Manager

Every designer currently working within the commercial sector or designing products for public use is currently encountering the term circular economy. Rather than the latest buzzword for recycling, the circular economy is a much broader, interconnected alternative to the traditional process of extracting raw materials and making them into products which are eventually discarded. The circular economy seeks to reimagine how things are made, designing against waste and pollution in the processes so that they have the potential to remain in use almost indefinitely, allowing natural environments to regenerate. The term circular references how humans can replicate the earth’s natural cyclical model, where nothing is ever really wasted but rather used as material for the next generation of growth.

The Proliferation of Waste

Why has this shift in thinking occurred among manufacturers and designers? Two reasons: raw materials and waste. In the traditional linear model of extract-manufacture-use-dispose vast quantities of energy and raw materials are required for manufacturing and construction that have a usable lifespan (determined by design, technological obsolescence, or simply changing design trends) before finally being disposed. Some components may be reused or recycled but the vast majority end up as waste degrading (or not) in landfill sites.

This model is simply no longer sustainable, neither from a resource nor a financial viewpoint. In 2012, Transparency Market Research reported that global waste generation levels were approximately 1.3 billion tons per year and that this volume was expected to increase to 2.2 billion tons by 2025. But according to The World Bank, in 2016 the world’s cities generated 2.01 billion tons of solid waste with an expected 70 percent increase to 3.40 billion tons by 2050. And construction debris accounts for half of the solid waste generated worldwide every year.

An average business disposing of its waste can account for up to a four to five percent of annual turnover. In the UK over 120 metric tons of waste generated from construction, demolition, and excavation every year represents 59 percent of total UK waste and nearly 30 percent of construction firms’ pre-tax profit.

In the US and other countries currently undergoing a construction boom, the waste generated from construction is twice that of municipal waste. Alarmingly, very little waste is reused or recycled. In fact, the volume of repurposed waste has actually decreased over the last 15 years. For an industry constantly under tighter profit margins, the pressure to produce a price equilibrium doesn’t always take into account the impacts its activity has on the wider society. Most waste materials do not biodegrade and in some instances contain hazardous materials or chemicals. As landfill sites accumulate, these chemicals frequently enter our food and water supply, endangering human life, health, and the potential for land reuse.

The Quest for Raw Materials

The other economic driver is raw materials. With several countries focused on rebuilding and modernizing an aging infrastructure, the construction industry is at the center of rapid economic and social change, which is transforming the built environment. As developing countries lift themselves out of poverty and become economically competitive, populations grow and cities expand requiring more construction. Economic prosperity is creating demand not only for housing but for commercial, infrastructure, agriculture, education, healthcare, and retirement facilities.

Raw materials are crucial for a strong industrial base; they are an essential building block of economic growth and competitiveness. Accelerating technological innovation cycles and the rapid growth of emerging economies have led to a steady, increasing demand for highly sought after materials and minerals. Future global resource use could double between 2010 and 2030. However, the capacity of the planet to continue to provide raw materials at our increased rate of extraction and consumption is simply no longer possible.

To illustrate, Global Footprint Network produces a metric called Earth Overshoot Day (EOD), which is the calculated calendar date when humanity's resource consumption for a given year exceeds the Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources that year. In 2019, Earth Overshoot Day was on July 29, which means we have gone into ecological deficit. Accumulated over time, it illustrates how unsustainable our consumption patterns are.

A circular economy seeks to address these two challenges through the creation of two cycles that mimic nature, the first being technical and the second biological. The task considers as equal stakeholders, not just society and our current human needs, with opportunities for economic growth that include the natural capital of marginalised communities, but also the needs of future societies. The other equal stakeholder is the environment, including all species that are part of the natural world, ensuring that human growth and prosperity can take place alongside the growth of natural cycles and prosperity rather than in opposition to it.

The technical cycle looks at how valuable raw materials, metals, polymers, and alloys can be extracted from manufactured goods to be reused in new products and includes the key role designers can play in the creation of modular components that can be disassembled and reused. It looks at production processes in manufacturing and how these can be optimized to become more energy-efficient, generate less waste, and how to reuse that waste in new and innovative ways.

The second is the biological cycle, which relates to how man-made products can be designed to be biodegradable and compostable. It takes a closer look at biomimicry, whereby scientifically-understood natural processes can be harnessed and replicated without the use of harmful chemicals. It also examines material science and raw materials—how a product’s chemical bonds can be disassembled and rearranged at a molecular level to become something completely new and reusable. And it considers how we can power these initiatives by divesting away from fossil fuels towards flows of energy reliant on sustainable sources and include initiatives sympathetic to natural cycles that can slow and eventually halt environmental degradation.

Make no mistake, this is one of the most important challenges in the world of design, manufacturing, and building construction. We will need to use a completely different mindset in thinking about the global impact of products, design, and services at every stage of their life cycle, alongside every system with which they interact. But instead of becoming overwhelmed by looking at the scale of the task, a more pragmatic exercise will break it down into a manageable set of priorities. In beginning to use this process of transition (even at a small scale) and by leveraging existing technology and proven processes, we can start to move towards an economy that works within the limits of our planet, thereby meeting the environmental, social, and economic challenges of resource use, waste, and climate change in the 21st century.

The Way Forward

While a comprehensive global environmental and economic policy to help guide business decisions towards the circular economy is yet to emerge, there are encouraging strategies and examples evolving within the design and construction industry that point the way forward. One of the most clearly realised examples is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Begun as a charity by the record-breaking, long-distance solo yachtswoman whose name it bears, the foundation works with business and education to accelerate the transition toward a circular economy. Its research has identified the following three principles as the basis of a new system, underpinned by a transition towards renewable energy sources:

  • Design out waste and pollution
  • Keep products and materials in use
  • Regenerate natural systems

First Principle

The first principle is designing out waste and pollution by omitting externalities—those negative impacts of economic activity that cause damage to human health and natural systems. This includes the release of greenhouse gases and hazardous substances, as well as the pollution of air, land, water, and structural waste, as well as traffic congestion.

How does this apply in practice to designers at the project brief and design stage? Dr. Katie Beverley, a Senior Research Officer with Ecodesign Center, PDR, a leading global design consultancy and applied research center, suggests visualizing a lifecycle approach at the design phase, informed by design thinking and human-centered design in the following ways:

  • Understand the user and the systems you interact with. Are furniture and materials new and sourced from abroad, or can repurposed materials and finishes be sourced locally? If the materials are locally available, why manufacture them abroad when sourcing them locally could create job opportunities and support a new skills base, particularly in areas of marginalised communities where unemployment is high? What waste is being generated, and how can this lead to economic opportunities? What fuel is used in the production processes, and can sustainable energy sources be substituted? What networks can arise through the projects we engage with?
  • Define the design challenge and your intention as the designer. A project is always more than an aesthetic challenge; it should be solving multiple problems. Sustainability programs such as LEED and WELL already consider things like air and water quality as well as access to public transportation to minimise emissions from traffic. But what about making the objectives of the project as important as its lifespan? What need(s) are being satisfied or problems solved? Can the solution be future-proofed to have a life beyond the immediate project instead of generating waste? What if there is a change in use; can the project adapt with minimal disruption and waste to a new purpose? Can the project be scaled upwards or downwards depending on client need? How can the project provide savings and in some cases passive income for its users through investment in different technologies and processes?
  • Ideate, design, and prototype different iterations and versions—the hardest part for time-constrained designers! Developing different options allows designers to consider all closed loops in a system from environmental to social impacts. Can the building accommodate a vertical garden for migratory birds and insects? Will this contribute to passive cooling within the building and savings on energy costs? Can organic waste and water waste from within the building serve as compost for this garden?

This process takes into account project setting, type, and number of materials selected, as well as the location of production and distribution methodology and integration with local communities, both natural and human-made. Using this approach creates a business case to maximum the value derived from materials and products no longer needed in the built asset, closing the loop of construction waste. In order for this to work effectively, collaboration is required between designers, manufacturers, and contractors on scalable, commercial pilot projects. It requires the engagement of building management technologies and commercial real estate investment, which is especially important in determining the lifecycle implications of the design approach. This includes:

  • How components can be designed for reuse or replaced to limit waste
  • Ensuring capital investment makes a budget available to repurpose components
  • Devising the best circular business approach for materials and finishes at the end of the project life by reconsidering fixtures, fittings, and equipment as assets with reuse value rather than depreciated waste, and arriving at a point where designing waste solutions at the end of a project is as important as the creative brief at its beginning.

The success of such projects will provide the evidence base to inspire decision-makers and support policy development.

Second Principle

The second principle is to keep materials and products in use by drawing on technology and innovation to preserve value in the form of energy, labor, and materials. This means designing for durability, reuse, remanufacturing and recycling to keep products, components, and materials circulating within the economy.

A more strategic and flexible approach from architects and designers is required. Currently, new buildings are designed to last an average of 60 years. But if waste and labour are to be minimized the building components should be designed for deconstruction, flexibility, and adaptability to situations within that timeframe. A need for change can result from future regulatory non-compliance issues, technological advances for occupants, or changes in planning policy.

By looking at the building as layers of an onion, beginning with the façade and ending with the interiors, a hierarchy of adaptable components can be considered. For example, understanding whether the facade would need to be replaced to adapt the building to a new use can determine its material and installation. At the same time, the building’s engineering team can future-proof the building through designing passive cooling or ventilation systems. The interior design can use reclaimed materials rather than new ones and use components made to be disassembled or reused at the end of their installation. These can live on—reclaimed, recycled, or composted at the end of their product life. At the end of the building’s life, contractors and building management should aim to recover materials and products on site for reuse.

The aim of developing a circular economy approach within a design is to save costs by becoming resource efficient, generating revenue through reuse of materials, and creating environmental value by reducing CO2 emissions. At that scale it can also produce social value. By supporting job creation, as mentioned earlier, in furniture, fixture, and equipment remanufacture workers from local communities can be retrained and employed, creating new job opportunities particularly in deprived regional or urban areas with high unemployment rates.

Moving from the idea of product ownership to serviced ownership is another feature of the circular economy. Frequently, costly equipment and hardware are only used for a short period of time, which represents not only a major financial outlay but has a built-in obsolescence that generates enormous amounts of waste. By offering products like computers and printers to their customers on a short-term basis through rental, subscription, and sharing or leasing agreements manufacturers take ownership of what they produce. This creates far more opportunity for entrepreneurship and new business opportunities because it reduces the need for significant capital investment. For manufacturers taking ownership of their old equipment at the end of its commercial life to extract valuable components and materials means less waste for landfill as those materials are repurposed and reused into new upcycled equipment. Companies like Apple, Dell and Microsoft are looking to extend the same flexibility in leasing their hardware as in licences for their software.

Third Principle

The first two principles concentrate on waste and resources use; the third principle is about regenerating natural systems. The raw materials we use require time to grow and reach maturity, as do the energy reserves we are currently over dependant on like oil, coal, and other fossil fuels. By avoiding the use of non-renewable resources and making use of and enhancing renewable resources economies can transition from resources based on energy reserves to those that utilize energy flows.

Right now, there is a tension between preserving natural resources, such as forests, mountains, and water sources, and the economic potential they offer particularly to growing economies in developing countries. The demand for timber, mining, quarrying, and arable land for farming can be very destructive to the environment. The demand for timber and paper products, which in theory should drive responsible forest management, drives deforestation, while mining and quarrying have a direct impact on the countryside, leaving pits and heaps of waste material. Extraction processes also contaminate ecosystems, air, and water source aquifers with other pollutants, while putting wildlife and local populations at risk.

Globally, materials production and consumption is coming up against environmental constraints in almost every domain, including species biodiversity, land-use change, climate impacts, and biogeochemical flows. While local extraction and processing helps to improve standards of living in the developing world, it can also lead to environmental concerns. For example, the cement industry is the third ranking producer of anthropogenic (man-made) CO2 in the world after transport and energy generation. It is hugely energy intensive and produces large CO2 emissions, nitrogen oxides (NOx), and sulphur dioxide ((S02). Likewise, aggregates gathered from rocks require large amounts of energy and water to crush, process, sort, and wash into commercial grade material for construction.

By employing responsible operational practices and using available technology, most impacts can be controlled, alleviated, or kept at tolerable levels and can be restricted to the immediate vicinity of the aggregate operation. Increased use of recycled concrete as aggregate and artificial aggregates made from by-products of other industries can mitigate operational spending through material reuse and less environmental damage. Simultaneously, several aggregate industries are already creating a suite of Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) to provide clients with detailed information on the environmental impact of their ready-mixed concrete and encourage the implementation of sustainable solutions that meet environmental standards like BREEAM.


Likewise, extraction firms must take financial responsibility for the environmental degradation of their operations and partner with ecologists, plant, and wildlife specialists to encourage ideas around land reclamation and plant regrowth. Soil treatment can mitigate the metals present and re-establish viable soils and vegetation to re-establish habitats. Water can be treated on site through water treatment plants to remove acidity, or by lower-cost passive treatment at desirable wetlands and other wildlife habitats that encourage the environment to operate alongside heavy industry.

This concludes part one of the circular economy series. In part two we will consider examples alongside their application for designers, contractors, manufacturers, and facilities managers, and we will explore specific applications of these principles for designers, including integration with programs already in place such as WELL, LEED and BREEAM.

Rob Atkinson

Senior Project Manager

With over 25 years of design experience, over 15 of which have been in leadership roles, Rob Atkinson simultaneously occupies the roles of Lead Designer, Senior Project Manager, and Sustainability Consultant across a broad range of industry sectors. These include a specific focus on workplace, financial, infrastructure, and life sciences projects. He collaborates with senior stakeholders and leads creative and technical teams globally across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

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The Circular Economy: Part One via @IAarchitects 

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