WHAT IS THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY?
We currently use the equivalent of 1.5 earths to meet our resource needs and absorb the resulting waste. This is projected to rise to the equivalent of 2 earths by 2030, meaning it will take 2 years to regenerate the resources we use in 1 year. The traditional linear economy which has a ‘take, make, dispose’ model is not sustainable and needs to be replaced by the regenerative circular economy embracing reuse, repair, remanufacturing and closed recycling loops.
The practical application of the circular economy has been popularised by the “Cradle to Cradle” design philosophy by Braungart and McDonough whereby closed loop natural systems are imitated to solve human problems. Life cycle assessment is at the core of this concept whereby the overall impact of a product or service is assessed at the onset to minimise its environmental impact.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS?
The circular economy looks at all the options across the supply chain to use as few resources as possible in the first place, keep resources in circulation for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them while in use, then recover and regenerate products at the end of service life. This means designing products for longevity with repairability in mind so that materials can be easily dismantled and recycled. This approach to product development and use will bring a myriad of benefits across the triple bottom line of sustainability as follows:
• Alleviate global warming
Global demand for resources such as industrial metals and natural gas is projected to double by 2050. Further, the process of extracting, converting and using these resources result in increased carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. Reducing, reusing and recycling these resources has the potential to drastically reduce global warming. For example, recycling aluminium uses only a fraction of the energy required to extract the material from iron ore.
• Waste prevention and reduced environmental pollution
Globally we generate about 1.3 billion tons of waste per year which is far more than can be properly reprocessed and recycled. This has led to several environmental tragedies with the most pertinent being ocean plastic pollution. By 2050 it is estimated that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight. At the development stage, we need to reconsider our usage of single use plastics particularly in product packaging.
• Economic competitiveness
Optimising the use of resources will enable businesses to hedge against rising resource and material prices. Changing consumer consumption patterns will drive adoption of “as-a-service” business models with a focus on availability rather than ownership. Scalable subscription services which were popularised by entertainment behemoths like Spotify and Netflix is also being considered by companies like Ikea and Lego to improve utilisation of their end products and drive up profits.
• Job creation
Closing the loop in the product cycle through repair, remanufacturing and recycling is estimated to create an additional 40-50 million new jobs globally by 2030.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN CHALLENGES?
Our global economy is intrinsically designed to cater for mass production whereby goods can be produced fast and in large volumes to meet-ever increasing market demand. Despite realisation of the need to change from a linear consumption and production model towards a circular one, the following challenges remain:
• Consumer behaviour
Consumers are accustomed to convenience in consuming products and this has resulted in the proliferation of single use plastics. Today we use 20 times more plastics than we did 50 years ago. Moving towards a zero-waste lifestyle will necessitate consumer behavioural changes.
Technological advancements are required to broaden the spectrum of recyclable products. For example, the sorting process to process different grades and qualities of aluminium will need to be made more affordable to encourage wider adoption.
• Recycling networks
The world’s population is on track to exceed 9.5 billion people by 2050. Most of this growth
will occur in developing countries particularly Asia, fuelling rapid industrialisation. However,
the lack of proper infrastructure to facilitate recycling and remanufacturing will hamper the
circular economy in this region.
• Government regulation
Strong waste management regulations in developed countries has resulted in a “waste transfer” particularly plastic waste to developing countries with softer restrictions such as Vietnam and Indonesia. A clear policy and regulatory direction on minimising waste
globally is necessary.
GREENRE AND “CIRCULAR BUILDINGS” IN MALAYSIA
In setting higher standards for property development in Malaysia through our voluntary green building standards, GreenRE aims to drive the sector towards being more sustainable. The circular economy concept is embraced in our push for closed loop buildings by rewarding projects that optimise the construction and operation of a building throughout
Following are some of the key components of a circular building:
• Site selection
Development on brownfield (previously contaminated sites) is encouraged to reduce pressure on clearing greenfield land. Further, restoring existing buildings or structures reduces energy and wastes associated with demolition and construction.
• Sustainable materials and products
Re-use and salvage of building materials can significantly reduce the amount of virgin materials used for construction. Cement production is one of the largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions responsible for around eight percent of global emissions. As an essential component of concrete, the use of green cements which replace ordinary portland cement with waste material from other industrial processes such as fly ash drastically reduces the embodied carbon of concrete. Sustainably harvested wood and steel are encouraged for building superstructure design. Eco-labelled products should be used where possible throughout the building.
• Recycling infrastructure
Buildings are encouraged to provide recycling bins for separation of waste. This should be extended to all refuse stations and central waste collection within the building.
Buildings should be designed with a long-term view both in terms of higher quality materials and adaptability in design to enable resilience and relevance throughout its life cycle.
This article is contributed by Green RE Sdn Bhd, which was set up by REHDA in 2013 to promote sustainability in the property industry. It has developed one of the leading green rating tools in Malaysia, recognised by MESTECC, MGTC, MIDA, IRDA and local authorities. For more information on GreenRE visit www.greenre.org