Health, circularity and material transparency: rethinking our material world

We know that, at scale, human health and planetary health are the same thing. So it stands to reason that from a rounded and holistic world view, health and circularity are two sides of the same coin that need to be addressed together, particularly in the context of building products and material cycles. 

The Ellen Macarthur Foundation defines a circular economy as one that is restorative and regenerative by design, underpinned by three key principles:

  • designing out waste and pollution;
  • keeping products and materials in use;
  • regenerating natural systems.

As we transition from our current take-make-waste linear systems into new models built around greater cycling of resources, we need to understand more about these inputs, what they’re made of, and how they may react when reprocessed. The health and environmental impacts of most chemicals in circulation, despite their ubiquity, are unknown, and an estimated 95% of chemicals largely used in construction lack sufficient data on health impacts. Identification and safe handling of products are critical imperatives to avoid continually cycling and increasing exposure to content known to be toxic or suspected to be harmful. 

Unless we are careful, it’s easy to fall into this trap. As an example, brominated flame retardants (BFRs) – thought to interfere with thyroid hormone homeostasis and neurodevelopment – are already finding their way into black plastic food containers and children’s toys made from recycled consumer electronics., So what can be done to avoid these unintended consequences? How do we find and specify the products that are good for both people and the planet?

Building positive

Last year, IWBI joined the Cradle-to-Cradle Products Innovation Institute (C2CPII) on a roadshow to discuss precisely this: uniting manufacturers, designers, developers and sustainability consultants to unpack how we can conjoin positive impacts across people, planet and economy by designing for circularity. We heard how challenging it is to find and supply the right information, navigate the world of voluntary labels and testing protocols, and build the business case for doing the right thing. 

Industry leaders are forging ahead to develop innovative solutions and address these challenges. C2CPIII offer Cradle-to-Cradle product certification and a newer Material Health certificate, providing clarity and a common definition for what makes a material healthy and circular. Madaster has created a digital platform of detailed material passports for the components and products within our buildings — eliminating the issue of waste being a material without an identity. Shifting mindsets away from the concept of ownership to the new idea of being a temporary user of products and materials, this register of materials enables circularity through reuse, repair, remanufacture or recycling. 

Technological advances in online material databases also show a promising future in the availability and accessibility of data to drive more informed decisions. The mindful MATERIALS library, powered by GIGA’s ORIGIN materials data hub, offers a free-to-use portal for manufacturers to showcase sustainable product information and enables practitioners to quickly find products compatible with their project goals. 

Be the change

It will come as no surprise that we believe in the power of third-party certification and clear labeling to differentiate products with safer ingredients, and support consumer education and market demand for safer goods, services and places. The WELL Building Standard promotes the identification, evaluation and management of hazardous ingredients across building materials, cleaning products, waste, outdoor spaces and landscaping. Our aim is to reduce exposure risk, whether direct or through environmental contamination. Lastly, by enabling informed decision-making, WELL helps to bridge data gaps in the supply chain, supports innovation in green chemistry and advances market transformation.   

Our customers and their projects are at the forefront of driving this transformation. EDGE Technologies’ EDGE Olympic building is a landmark example of a healthy, circular approach. The world’s first project certified under WELLv2 at the Platinum level, it also boasts one of the highest Madaster Circularity Indicator (CI) scores in the Netherlands, with all its reclaimed and low-emitting material components comprehensively registered.

A healthy, circular approach: old natural stone that was previously facade cladding now serves as flooring on the ground floor of the WELL Certified Platinum EDGE Olympic. 
Photo credit: EDGE Technologies

Global manufacturer Milliken is another company doing right by both customers and employees. It has extensive product listings within the mindful MATERIALS library, including some that are Cradle-to-Cradle certified by C2CPII. Milliken has also signed on as one of our first WELL Portfolio members looking to scale health-promoting environments across its global real estate portfolio. 

And finally, in direct response to rigorous data requests from Landsec’s new WELL Certified workplace in London Victoria, furniture manufacturer Orangebox proactively tested its entire product range for VOCs. They could see the growing market demand for transparency around material health and indoor air emissions and took decisive action to get ahead of the curve. 

As more and more organizations start taking a holistic approach to complex, systemic issues like sustainable development, it’s important not to underestimate the power of a single action or project to drive change. The more we collaborate to elevate the importance of these issues, the more we’ll achieve and the faster we’ll get there. 

This article is written by Victoria Lockhart, Director of Market Development at International WELL Building Institute.

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