How we construct and use buildings presents the biggest opportunity to close the enormous circularity gap in the global economy, according to Planet Ark CEO Paul Klymenko, with Australian companies such as Bingo and AMP Capital at the forefront of this movement.
According to a new report from global circular economy experts Circle Economy, the world economy is only 8.6 per cent circular. That is, more than 90 per cent of the world’s minerals, fossil fuels, metals and biomass are consumed without much thought given to the waste and pollution created in the process.
This figure hasn’t budged much over the years according to Paul Klymenko, founding director and chief executive of Planet Ark, an Australian environmental organisation helping to spread the global report’s message in the region.
He says that’s because it’s still a “new paradigm”. But it’s a paradigm gaining currency as people recognise its potential to curb the worst effects of climate change.
Growing or digging up virgin materials and manufacturing them into clothes, food, cars, houses and other goods accounts for a 70 per cent of all global emissions, according to the report. That means a doubling down on circular economies – an increase of 8.6 per cent circularity to 17 per cent – should be enough to keep the planet below dangerous levels of warming.
For Klymenko, the link between climate change and the circular economy is clear. It’s possible to decarbonise the economy without circularity, he explains, by going down our existing trajectory of using renewable energy sources and carbon sequestration.
But the inverse is not true. “You can’t have circular economy that isn’t carbon neutral.” That’s because fossil fuels need to be replaced with renewables, both for energy and for making products such as plastic.
A carbon neutral planet without circularity is not truly sustainable as resources will eventually run out.
The built environment opportunity
The built environment is ripe for a circular overhaul, according to the report. Applying tried and tested circularity strategies to the way we construct and use houses, commercial and industrial buildings can achieve half the savings needed to keep the world below 2 degrees of warming.
Food and transit are the next largest opportunities for closed loop transformation.
Klymenko says we have most of the technology and know how we need to achieve circularity in the built environment.
Fewer but better homes are a good start, as are smaller homes that require less material to build.
Drawing on the natural world to design less resource dependant structures will also play a role, as will using natural or renewable materials such as timber. Ongoing resource consumption can be covered by electrification and renewable energy to run the heat pumps, electric stoves and so on.
Retrofitting rather than rebuilding is also encouraged, where possible, and recycling used building materials.
Retrofitting at scale
Retrofitting a free-standing home is fairly straightforward but it’s also possible on a larger scale, such as AMP Capital’s Quay Quarter Tower in Sydney that retained 66 per cent of the building’s existing columns, beams and slabs and 95 per cent of its internal wall.
In total, 50 per cent of the 3XN-designed building’s resources were reused from the existing building. The incredible design and execution saved 7500 tonnes and an estimated economic saving of $130 million.
Klymenko says that there are notable opportunities to cut costs. “My belief is when you save resources you are saving money.”
The reality is a little more complicated than that, with high capital costs of recycling and manufacturing equipment.
But investing in these technologies can pay off. Bingo is graduating from its waste management roots to a circular economy business model, having invested in the equipment to take construction waste, separate it into different waste streams, and sell it back to the customers in the construction supply chain.
“Basically that means they are collecting your waste and selling it back to you as a product.”
The venture is now responsible for almost 10 per cent of the company’s revenue.
Another important circularity consideration is finding ways to keep materials used to make solar panels and other renewable energy equipment in circulation. Lithium batteries look set to be a big problem, with Perth-based Lithium Australia launching Envirostream Australia, a mixed battery recycling company, in 2017 to close the loop on tis products.
Klymenko expects the circular transition to accelerate in response to the waste ban legislation, Product Stewardship Act (passed last year) and the Recycling Modernisation Fund.