Blog: Innovation & the Circular Economy

Debbie Ward, Business Development Manager for Gleeds, shares her thoughts and insights on our latest Innovation Policy and Practice Breakfast.

As a passionate advocate of the circular economy, I was delighted to join Gerrard Fisher (QSA) and Clare Ollerenshaw (Circular Consultants) in presenting at IAWM’s Innovation Policy and Practice Breakfast on ‘Innovation and the Circular Economy’.

What do we mean by ‘Circular Economy’?

In my role as Business Development Manager for Gleeds, I am in contact with a wide cross section of people across multiple sectors, all with varied awareness of the circular economy. For those that have some idea of what it is about, many describe it as ‘something about waste and recycling’, however this is only part of the picture.

A key principle of the Circular Economy is keeping materials at their highest value possible for as long as possible. A circular approach follows a process of avoid, reduce, reuse, repair, refurbish, remanufacture, upcycle and then recycle, and ultimately feeding into energy from waste. For those fresh to the topic, the Ellen MacArthur foundation provides useful analogies and descriptions to enable a better understanding of the circular economy.

Other key principles of a circular economy are zero waste or waste equals food; zero pollution; renewable energy use; and that activities are restorative and regenerative.

Circular Economy in the Real World

Gerrard Fisher’s presentation on ‘Circular Economy in the Real World’ discussed a number of the CE principles of ‘no waste’, the reuse of products and renewable resources. First introduced by Walter Stahel, Gerrard touched on the idea of labour being a renewable – and therefore non-taxable – resource. What would happen, he questioned, if only non-renewable resources were taxed?

It’s important to look at the bigger picture and be cognisant that renewable doesn’t always mean sustainable. Given that the information provided is often insufficient, it can be difficult to take all the ‘externalities’ into consideration to choose the most environmentally sustainable product or service. Indeed, what may initially appear to be the most sustainable solution can be proven otherwise when a systems level approach is taken.

A key message of this presentation was the importance of continuing the best practice of being customer centric. ‘Customer’ sits at the top of Gerrard’s considerations through which QSA take their clients. This is then followed by Commercial Case, Coherence, Commitment, Collaboration, Change and Circularity. The QSA image below gives an overview of the different circular models that can be adopted by businesses on the journey to becoming circular. As the complexity of the model increases, so too does the value generated and strength of relationship with your customer base.

The Built Environment and Construction

My presentation focussed on the Built Environment and how the Circular Economy is relevant to construction. The construction industry is one of a number of sectors being targeted by organisations like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the EU Circular Economy package. But there are other ‘high waste’ sectors that could also achieve huge economic, as well as social and environmental, benefits to going circular – such as textiles, electronics and food & beverage. With price volatility and materials scarcity on the horizon, the construction sector needs to be paying more attention to the benefits that ‘going circular’ can bring.

The UK government is starting gradually, but subtly, to push on the circular agenda. The Industrial Strategy and Waste & Resource strategy are two examples, along with the new draft London Plan which has created the Policy S17, requiring referable projects to have a Circular Economy Statement as part of the planning application.

Pressure is also building from the ‘bottom up’ via the school climate strikers and many public bodies declaring a climate emergency and setting out associated net zero carbon targets. Circular Economy solutions address GHG emissions, and with that – carbon targets. Concepts working in conjunction with BIM such as Materials Passports and Buildings as Material Banks are moving from being theories to practices with projects such as ABN AMRO’s Circl Pavillion and more recently the Triodos bank Dutch HQ. Innovation is required to make the shift from ‘Business As Usual’ to circularity, not only from clients and design teams themselves but also in their approach to their supply chains. Suppliers need the certainty that the R&D required to deliver circular products is desired and will be rewarded.

Benefits of a Circular Economy

Lastly, Clare gave an overview of the ‘Benefits of a Circular Economy for Regions and Cities’, both social and environmental.

Research by WRAP shows that by 2030, on the basis of the current development path, the circular economy could create over 200,000 gross jobs and reduce unemployment by about 54,000 in the UK. More extensive expansion of circular economy activities could more than double these figures, creating around half a million jobs (gross), reducing unemployment by around 102,000, and potentially offsetting around 18 per cent of the expected loss in skilled employment over the next decade. Powerful numbers indeed.

Circular economy can also be used as a lens for looking at how we plan and develop communities to create thriving, liveable areas. But how can local authorities drive and support the adoption of circular principles and business models? Cities such as London and Peterborough have created policy documents, such as the new draft London Plan, and procurement is a huge lever for cities and businesses alike. It doesn’t cost anything to have the conversation with suppliers. What discussions are happening in their board rooms? How environmentally sustainable are their products and/or services, and in fact the credentials of their suppliers too? The more times an organisation is asked those questions by their clients the more likely they are to review their practices.

Panel Discussion

Other enabling practices include communication and education, as well as presenting tangible examples. Cities need to encourage and drive change by facilitating case studies to demonstrate benefits, in parallel with offering business support and financial assistance to those starting their circular journey. Zero Waste Scotland and Advance London are examples where this is already happening.

A number of questions followed the presentations which stimulated fruitful discussion around:

  • the vital nature of education, and how both schools and universities needs to ensure circularity is a key part of the curriculum in order to embed circular thinking into the minds of future engineers, architects, business people and leaders.
  • The importance of talking to businesses about circularity (and keeping talking to business continuously!) in business terms, perhaps integrating it into other broader messages, for example as part of a business risk discussion.
  • If we are to move to circular models becoming the norm, the question was posed, who designs the architecture to ensure we have a truly integrated circular economy?

In conclusion, Innovation and the Circular Economy go hand in hand. Transforming into as near to a completely Circular Economy as possible will require significant alternations to how we live, work and play. However, whilst collaborative innovation is vital in giving us the ability to change, the biggest barrier seems to be a lack of will to change. So how can we use innovation to solve the cultural, social and psychological issues around the changes required to move to a Circular Economy?

(Author: Debbie Ward, Gleeds)

You can follow Debbie on Twitter. 

Links to presentations:

Debbie Ward – Circular Economy in a built environment context

Gerrard Fisher: Circular economy in the real world

Clare Ollerenshaw: Circular Consultants Ltd