Consultant Aecom is working with Highways England to embed circular economy thinking across some of the countrys biggest road projects including the A303 at Stonehenge.
Sustainability in design and construction is a hot topic with organisations increasingly seeking routes to mitigate environmental damage and reduce resource depletion.
The concept of the circular economy offers a philosophy for sustainable resource management, which has gained increasing traction in the construction industry in recent years.
But varying academic definitions of circular economy principles have ultimately led to some confusion about what the concept actually means.
Consultant Aecom started working to develop a circular economy approach for Highways England in 2015 and sought to adopt a specific working definition for the concept. It has based its definition on that promoted by charity the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
This relies on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems.
In a traditional linear economy, you take resources, you use them and then you dispose of them at end of life or you might recycle a certain proportion. Its very much about take, use and dispose, explains David Smith, Aecoms technical director for business sustainability.
In contrast, circular economy thinking aims to disrupt this conventional approach and avoid disposal to landfill by keeping resources at the highest level of utility for as long as possible.
Within the context of an organisational approach to the circular economy, its critical to embed these processes from the start of a project, insists Smith.
Traditionally, companies follow processes and end up with waste. They then start to think about how or where that waste can be recycled.
With the circular economy approach, you plan the route for the sustainable management of resources right from the outset.
Mitigating the environmental impact is an obvious benefit of the approach, but there are also advantages in terms of reducing supply chain risk.
With major construction projects getting the green light across the UK, there is more competition for resources.
But from a business perspective, circular economy principles can help an organisation retain control.
For example, if a business recycles its own resources, then theres less need to go out into the marketplace to buy in those new materials,says Smith.
However, the circular economy approach is broader and far more ambitious than simply recycling resources.
Smith explains it is about taking a holistic view of how resources are managed from the outset and making design decisions that keep opportunities open.
So how has Aecom applied these principles to its work with Highways England?
With the circular economy approach you plan the route for the management of resources right from the outset
Its first commission from the highways operator was at a corporate level. The project involved developing a transition plan to explore existing activities that could contribute to a circular economy, as well as identifying key stakeholders andhow they might facilitate that transition.
A key element of this work was a pathfinder project, which involved developing and recording the practical applications of circular economy thinking at project level to support the transfer of knowledge to future projects.
It was about finding out what works and what doesnt work, says Smith.
The 1.5bn A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon improvement scheme is the first Highways England project to incorporate circular economy principles. Aecom joined the project during the detailed design phase.
Most of the key elements of the scheme had been designed before Aecom joined the project, laments Smith.
From a theoretical perspective, the earlier youre involved in a project, the greater your ability to influence the design.
The bottom line is that humanity isnt using resources sustainably, so something has to change
In contrast, for the 1.9bn A303 Amesbury to Berwick Down (Stonehenge) project Aecom was involved through the preliminary design phase. The scheme includesa 12.8km dual carriageway and a 3.2km tunnel underneath the World Heritage Site.
The team has participated in the statutory powers and procedures phase of the scheme, which includes work towards the appointment of main contractors.
Smith says: Weve sought to integrate circular economy requirements into the contracts so that they get taken forward in the project. Potential contractors need to demonstrate particular behaviours, impacts and deliverables.
Weve learnt and refined our approach from our experience on the A14 project, he adds. Weve deliberately sought to integrate the circular economy into business as usual. Instead of being an academic research exercise, its practical, its hands on, and its about collaboration.
A collaborative approach is key to the success of circular economy principles. Smith insists it is impossible for any organisation to embrace the approach in isolation.
You need to work with other stakeholders. You need to be aware of where your materials are coming from and what infrastructure and requirements are likely to be available to manage those resources at the end of service life, he says.
It is also important for organisations to understand any critical restrictions or limitations on resources. For example, combining particular materials during a project might prevent them from being recycled or reprocessed at a later date, so understanding resource flows and communicating this to key stakeholders is essential.
Ensuring consistent communication across projects is vital, especially because circular economy principles can be highly nuanced, and organisations tend to approach them from differing perspectives.
Everybody has a piece of the puzzle, but they dont necessarily see the big picture. The approach requires fundamentally changing how we do things, explains Smith.
He insists the key to Aecoms success in implementing circular economy thinking across projects has been identifying the right stakeholders with the influence and motivation to make it happen. As a consultant, gaining client buy-in is crucial.
Highways England has been brilliant as a client from that perspective, he adds. They get it and theyre really committed.
Aecom is increasingly looking to promote the circular economy across projects and ensure it is widely recognised as a requirement.
With sustainability high on the agenda for most organisations, circularity offers a much-needed step change to ensure that a thriving economy does not come at the expense of the natural environment.
The bottom line is that humanity isnt using resources sustainably, so something has to change, says Smith.
The circular economy is a way of contributing to a more sustainable future.
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