Materials, infrastructure, and places – how Circular Economy can shape Australia’s built Environment

2018 brought the circular economy into the spotlight in Australia – previously an under-the-radar concept, the waste management crisis brought about by China’s National Sword policies restricting waste imports has led to responses across all levels of government including the Commonwealth’s 2018 National Waste Policy and pledges from most states to release circular economy policies by 2020. Collaborative platforms such as the New South Wales’ Circular Economy Innovation Network and innovation hubs are receiving renewed attention – Queensland’s Circular Economy Lab was launched in February this year, and groups such as UNSW’s SMaRT Centre are gaining worldwide recognition, particularly around high-value material recovery and the microfactory model.

Infrastructure development currently plays – and will continue to play – a key role in Australia’s economy. However, a combination of the country’s vulnerability to external shocks (especially in commodity prices) and early concerns over potential material supply shortfalls may lead to disruption over the next few years, making the nascent growth of the Australian circular economy movement all the more relevant. However, the drivers for the transition aren’t just about addressing risk – in 2015, the World Economic Forum estimated that a more circular economy in Australia could generate ~US$18bn by 2025, while a 2017 report issued by Green Industries SA estimated that it could help South Australia reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 27 % while creating over 25,000 jobs. On top of this, there is growing recognition globally that a transition to a circular economy could help to achieve several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

A major barrier to implementation of good circular economy practice lies in common language. Like sustainability, circular economy is an extremely broad framework and does not have a single definition (for example, one recent study analysed 144 different definitions), and there is a huge variation in understanding and perception between different stakeholder groups and individuals.

ISCA is taking its first steps in supporting the industry in the transition by highlighting current good practices that may not be recognised as circular economy initiatives is crucial for increasing awareness, demystifying the concept, and illustrating what “circular” looks like. In 2018, ISCA certified the sustainability performance of 9 projects at the end of the delivery phase [As-Built] which collectively:

  • Reduced material use by over 16 % (615,000 tonnes)
  • Used an average of 29 % Portland cement replacement material
  • Used an average of 10 % recycled plastic
  • Diverted 97 % of inert waste from landfill (avoiding ~US$10m in landfill levy costs) and reused over 1.6m tonnes of spoil (84 %).[1]

Uptake of secondary & recycled materials: while uptake of secondary materials can be hampered by supply and specification, there has been good progress recently in IS-certified projects in incorporating waste materials as Portland cement replacement, and in the use of post-consumer recycled plastic products such as drainage piping and railway sleepers. This demand pull-through is a crucial part in driving healthy local recycling markets.

Prefabrication: prefabrication and modular design can drive material efficiency, reduce disruption from works, and can enhance asset maintenance, adaptability, and deconstruction. The pre-fabrication and transport of bridge superstructures by Gateway South in South Australia marked a major first in Australia; meanwhile, prefabrication of steel cage by Liberty OneSteel, and bespoke pre-cast of concrete tunnel segments for the Sydney Metro project have realized major benefits for their respective projects.

Materials tagging and tracing: the Sydney Metro Northwest Tunnels, Stations, and Civils contractor used RFID technology to tag components with production and materials information during manufacturing, as well as logging where they have been installed in the project. This type of practice is vital in the circular economy, as it aids asset maintenance, repair/refurbishment, and recycling at end-of-life.

The latest version of ISCA’s rating scheme, ISv2.0, explicitly incorporates circular economy principles, replacing the word waste with resources across all its technical manuals. The other accelerant for change is minimum requirements of:

  • developing resource efficiency strategy and action plans;
  • setting resource recovery targets and implementing resource output management plans;
  • developing and implementing adaptability strategies;
  • modelling material lifecycle impacts.

It also rewards projects which go beyond, e.g. setting circular economy targets, re-use of resource outputs and using innovative solutions for resource outputs, designing for disassembly and recycling, and procuring products with approved sustainability labels.

Applying a circular economy framework can also reshape how we think about the places created by infrastructure and the built environment. Good urban design can greatly improve how space is used which can lead to both social and economic value through place creation.

Victoria’s ambitious Caulfield to Dandenong Level Crossing Removal Project elected to build three sections of elevated rail to replace nine level crossings, generating 22.5 hectares of open space in the process, and affecting a large swathe of residential area. Amid concerns that the new infrastructure would affect house prices, lead to urban blight, and affect local safety, the Community Open Space Expert Panel (COSEP) was formed, and many of its recommendations were incorporated into the design. The attention paid to urban design has led to a variety of community spaces with playgrounds, grassy areas, and recreational/sports facilities being created which have been well-received by residents. This has had a profound impact on the use of this space and, so far, appears to be creating a wealth of social value.

In 2014, the EU environment commissioner declared that a shift to a circular economy model was “inevitable”; today, this appears to be true globally – the main question is “how fast?”. This requires a complex transformation in the ways we make, build, and use things; individually, it requires a shift in our perception of value. However, the circular economy not only has a clear business case, but the benefits that it will generate across the quadruple bottom line promise a bright, resilient, and sustainable future.

[1] The national diversion rate for inert C&D waste is around 67 %.

This article is written by Dr Rob Hewlett, Special Projects Coordinator at ISCA.