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A fundamental rethink
We need to change the way we design assets and their constituent parts, so that they can be adapted, added to, operated and maintained with ever greater efficiency.
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Making our resources last a lifetime

Reaching net-zero will require infrastructure clients to fully embrace the principles of the circular economy, writes Sarah Griffiths.

For all the advances that have been made to reduce carbon emissions over the lifecycle of built assets, it will be impossible to reach net-zero if these assets continue to be built from virgin raw materials which are used only once, have a limited lifespan and are then disposed of.

Humanity is using up the world’s natural resources at an unsustainable rate, and the linear model of production, consumption and waste cannot continue. We need to shift to a circular system, in which waste and pollution are ‘designed out’, products and materials are kept in use for as long as possible, and natural systems are regenerated. In the infrastructure and built environment sectors, this will require a fundamental rethink of the way we plan and design assets and their constituent parts, so that they can be adapted, added to, taken apart and reassembled, operated and maintained with ever greater efficiency, and be used again and again. To make the circular vision a reality, we need to change the focus and practices of those who design, build and manage the built environment in at least two key ways.

Firstly, we need to design differently. Built environment professionals are now familiar with the concept of DfMA – design for manufacture and assembly. Developing a circular economy in the built environment calls for ‘DfX’ – design that considers the use, reuse and value of resources in perpetuity, taking account of externalities. DfX in the built environment encompasses prevention, manufacturing, reuse, recovery, recycling and more: it takes account of the entire asset lifecycle. We need to design in a way that makes it easier to reuse assets and the resources within them without requiring big new resource inputs when they are moved, altered or recycled; which means thinking about these things in advance.

Secondly, we all need to change our attitudes to resources that are already in the built environment, so that these are seen as a vast ‘materials bank’ for future use. We need to log, quantify and categorise resources in the built environment to understand what can potentially be reused, recovered and recycled. The more information that is made available on the assemblies, components and materials that are out there (including their condition and likely remaining service life) the more likely it is that future uses are found and that natural resources can be kept in the environment.

Digital solutions can really help here. By digitally tagging and tracking resources and their condition, asset owners can arrange pre-emptive maintenance that will optimise the efficiency and longevity of what they own; identify when replacements will be required; and identify used assets, components and materials that can be factored into design and procurement decision-making.

This kind of comprehensive digital approach to resource management will promote transparency across the built environment supply chain: whatever is supplied, whether reused or new, will need to come with a digital record of its constituent components and resources and their provenance. Working together and taking a systemic approach, we can make the world’s resources last a lifetime – or several lifetimes.

This article is part of a series we are publishing to celebrate the 10th annual Carbon Crunch, our event for infrastructure stakeholders focusing on carbon management and resilience.

Sarah Griffiths, sustainability consultant, Mott MacDonald

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