02 October 2017 | by

Currently, the world’s economy relies primarily on a “take, make, dispose” linear model that requires access to large quantities of cheap and accessible materials and energy and large areas in which to dispose of products at the perceived end of their lifecycle. However, we are now 1) running out of those large quantities, and 2) waste accumulation is becoming an ever-increasing problem.

Enter the ideology of a circular economy. In circular thinking, materials, components and products are kept at their highest use and value at all time. The focus is on restoration, regeneration and reuse rather than disposal.

The characteristics of a working circular economy

Waste is designed out of the production model

With biological waste, any threat of toxicity is eliminated by design, thus allowing materials to be composted. With non-biological materials, the focus is on upcycling, which is a step-change from the way we currently view recycling. Rather than a reduced quality (downcycled) product made from recycled materials, the focus is on creating man-made compounds that can be used again with minimal energy expenditure and maximum quality retention (upcycled).

Upcycling increases value whilst downcycling reduces it. Linear economy recycling efforts focus upon downcycling, whereas the focus in a circular economy is upcycling.

Products are designed to be resilient as well as efficient

In circular thinking, key design features include versatility, adaptability, and modularity, with a focus on creating diverse systems that can better withstand external pressures rather than systems that are simple and efficient but have limited lifespans.

Connected systems are integrated – minimising waste and reducing fossil fuel dependency

For instance, while agricultural production itself relies heavily on solar energy, the fertilisers, machinery, processing systems, etc. are dependent upon fossil fuels. By integrating these systems, one system’s by-products and waste can be captured and used by another’s – adding additional value while reducing waste and fossil fuel reliance.

Thinking takes in the wider systems and how each part influences the whole, with a focus on effectiveness.

Using linear-focused methodology, the baseline assumption is founded on a one-way system. Raw materials are extracted, turned into products that are used and then disposed of.

Within this type of economy, any focus regarding sustainability, eco-friendliness etc. is bounded by this linear, cradle to grave viewpoint. Therefore, the effort is on minimising the volume of and velocity in which materials flow through the system to their inevitable end. Some materials can be recycled, but the result is downcycling, which decreases material quality and limits usability, thus reducing desirability.

Within the circular economy model, the focus is on transforming products so that they form relationships with other products, and the materials used can flow through them, creating the most effective use of each component and minimising the need for new raw materials. Instead of creating an inferior recycled product, we are creating an equal or higher quality one.

With biological materials, the thinking is similar, but rather than applying systems thinking, we think in terms of a waterfall, with materials being cascaded through other applications, thus harnessing and taking advantage of the value provided by each stage of a material’s natural decomposition process.

The principles behind a working circular economy

The BS 8001 circular economy framework guidance highlights six primary principles that underline circular economy thinking. They are:

  1. Systems thinking. Understanding how what you do impacts things system-wide.
  2. Innovation. Looking at the way you manage resources with a mind to creating additional value.
  3. Stewardship. Being aware of the knock-on effect of every decision that you make and action that you take, and then taking responsibility for the results.
  4. Collaboration. Working with others towards a common goal.
  5. Optimising value. Ensuring that materials, products and components remain at their highest value and function always.
  6. Transparency. Being open and honest about the barriers as well as the benefits.
Collaboration v cooperation: When we cooperate, we help each other in order reach our own individual goals. When we collaborate, we work together towards a common, shared goal.

Issues and challenges

There are plenty of problems that need to be addressed in order to bring the good things already happening up to scale. These include issues around the interface between chemical waste and product legislation and the fact that our current waste law is designed for a linear economy. There is also the issue of perception. The current thinking is that any product or material that has been recycled, reused, or refurbished is inferior to something brand new. We also apply linear thinking to our perception of what constitutes sustainability. Other key issues include fragmentation in the value chain, transparency, competition concerns, silo working practices, and financing – where does the responsibility fall?

For the construction industry, a key issue is incentive; after all, the stakeholders in the design and construction of a building are typically not the ones invested in its use once it’s built. So, the question is how to create that connection and make it mean something?

Industrial symbiosis – a connection between companies where the by-products and/or waste from one becomes the raw materials for the other.

How do you fit in?

There is no guarantee that any organisation will benefit from the circular economy, but according to McKinsey & Company’s report (September 2015), adopting circular economy principles could potentially generate a net economic benefit of €1.8 trillion for Europe by 2030. This prediction indicates that there is a compelling business case to be found in adopting circular economy thinking in everyday business activities. This is why BSI has introduced BS 8001. With the help of this framework guidance, organisations can map out their own specific system and understand how adopting circular economy thinking can help them unlock new opportunities, create new revenue streams, capitalise on cost savings, and help them to become more resilient to external shocks, shifts and disturbances.

BS 8001:2017 – a Guide

BS 8001:2017 was created by a drafting panel that included representatives from Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment, University of Creative Arts Centre for Sustainable Design, Resource Association, and he Chartered Institution of Wastes Management amongst others. Overseeing the effort was a wider panel that included representatives from environment, business, and government sectors. The guidance garnered international interest, with some international entities taking the opportunity to provide their own thoughts during the commenting stage. It has been speculated that there is a good chance that BS 8001 could be adopted as the circular economy framework standard for Europe and possibly even internationally.

The new framework standard provides a comprehensive and practical guide that is flexible enough to be used by organisations at any point along the circular economy journey. It also provides a talking point; a place to begin the discussion regarding how any one organisation fits into the circular economy idea. Because that really is the key; determining where a business fits in. No one organisation can be circular by itself. Circular economy is a team sport, not a single player sport.

Find out more about BS 8001:2017

This article has been edited and repurposed from “Embracing the Circular Economy. BS 8001”, written for the Construction Information Service.