13 May 2022
Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre

The Circular Economy: Next steps for Australia’s Built Environment

Ahead of her appearance at the summit, we sat down with Nicole Garofano, Head Of Circular Economy Development at Planet Ark, joined by Maria Atkinson, Chair of the Holcim Foundation and member of the Australian Circular Economy Hub Advisory Board..

With the circular economy becoming a hot topic of discussion for our built environment sectors, the need for our industries and businesses to incorporate sustainable practices and processes on a larger scale is rising in importance. But what does this look like? And how exactly can we measure the outcomes? Transitioning from to a circular economy will not be a small feat for our built environment, but Nicole and Maria give us a look at what it will take, and how to best set up our industry for a more circular future.

1. Can you describe the main process  in switching from a linear to circular economy using the construction industry as an example?

Nicole: The process from transitioning from a linear to a circular economy requires organisations to rethink the way they engage with materials and products. The circular economy is a way to increase efficiencies in the way products are design and made, optimising resources to ensure they can continue to circulate through the economy. For the construction industry, the transition might be revealed through the designing of buildings for dissassembly, deconstruction and reconstruction with recovered materials. With a heavy footprint from construction and demolition waste, there is a need to retain the value of materials where structurally possible. [Maria] Other ways the construction industry can transition include incorporating renewable energy in designs and recycled water infrastructure connections. The transportation of products and materials is also a consideration, where locally sourced materials where possible can reduce emissions creating a positive impact on the build too.

2. Do we have any idea of the baseline for measuring a circular economy in construction?

Nicole: As noted in our Measuring the Circular Economy report developed in collaboration with Edge Environment and the ACE Hub, the need for measurement frameworks to benchmark circular economy business models was strongly encouraged. In Australia at present, we have limited attention on such frameworks. What we do have is individual data sets such as those developed for the National Waste Report. The key is to be able to provide benchmarks that are industry specific and that cover an agreed set of indicators.

Maria: In the example of the Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction, current practice describes circular as “In keeping with the holistic cradle-to-cradle ethic, the Foundation also emphasizes the need for a circular economy of resource use at all scales, whereby what goes in and what goes out must be restorative and regenerative. Long-term environmental concerns, especially in view of optimizing circular flows of material, water, and energy, should be an integral part of the design and construction approach to minimize greenhouse gas emissions, reduce waste, and promote the use of regenerative resources throughout the industry. Possible approaches include:

  • minimizing a project’s ecological footprint and maximizing its positive impact on the environment through more lean input-output cycles;
  • devising environmentally conscious land use strategies and policies that preserve the existing landscape and at the same take water and wildlife preservation as well as land reclamation into account;
  • emphasizing the use of renewable energy in construction as well as in the use and upkeep of the built fabric to lower carbon emissions;
  • deploying renewable material resources, while mining existing building stocks, minimizing the consumption of water, and reducing waste;
  • using resilient, durable, and environmentally sound technologies, developing robust construction details, and ensuring the optimal interaction of building systems.

An economy of means in construction must be pursued in order to avoid the wasteful consumption of materials and limit carbon emissions. The products used as well as construction processes deployed must adhere to the logic of circular economies. Possible strategies include:

  • relying on legitimate and transparent funding sources, while guaranteeing that any revenues generated are lawfully declared and benefit stakeholder communities as well as wider publics;
  • conceiving the project in view of its links to broader economic frameworks of local, regional, national, and global monetary flows;
  • seeking robust economic models that take unpriced external costs into consideration from the outset;
  • demonstrating a project’s flexibility to adapt to future changes of user needs, ownership, laws, and regulations, as well as adaptability to economic fluctuations;
  • introducing long-term economic incentives for reducing waste and harmful emissions throughout a project’s entire use-cycle.

3. In your 2021 research you identified a knowledge gap in the definition of circular economy. Can you fill this gap for the construction industry and give us a definition for our sector?

Nicole: In our 2021 Circularity in Australian Business Report, we found that a lack of information was the most commonly identified barrier to implementation of circular economy models in the respondent’s businesses. The mission of the ACE Hub is to help fill that gap by offering a range of knowledge events, including the panel at the BE Summit and our ACE Hub Conference happening in November this year. The way to get more information to those in the construction industry is to highlight examples of those who are already making the transition in the way they design, use and regenerate buildings. Learning through examples, and importantly, learning by doing, are both important. At the ACE Hub, we are looking to increase our case studies of construction examples to help with that learning. In terms of definitions, though, there was a report that found 114 definitions of the circular economy. For me, one definition I appreciate is:

‘a cyclical, closed-loop, regenerative system in which resource input and waste, emissions and energy leakage are minimised, and redesign and reuse of products are prioritised.’ Murray et al 2017 cited in Cramer 2020 I think this works for construction as well as any other sector.

4. What are the key practices that will contribute to the built environment moving towards net zero?

Maria: If all the products and services were net zero and the logistics were also net zero and the art of assembly (construction) was also powered by net zero machinery and energy and water …. wouldn’t we be at net zero?  So the emphasis must be on the supply chain for services rather than stuff, (a take back, repair, reprocess service for lighting, appliances, equipment etc) for solutions and on the designers to specify these.

Nicole: I would add to this that there are also key procurement practices that need to be adopted by all levels of government and by large industry that says, ‘in order to deliver on this tender, you need to provide evidence of the use of circular economy business models’ – with such large expenses, governments of all levels have a key role to play in determining our circular future.

5. How can technology assist built environment professionals create better sustainability outcomes? Can you give some examples of emerging technology in this area?

Nicole: There is a strong push for the need for materials or resource passports that can provide confidence in the reuse of materials. The ACE Hub is investigating ways of bringing together Australian technology of secondary materials exchanges with a proven resource passport functionality from the Netherlands to offer an Australian circular economy marketplace, including tracking and tracing.

Maria: Other technologies are needed in the building designs of the future, and in the acquiring of new skills, particularly for designing for disassembly. NEST in Switzerland offers examples of how this can be done.

6. What can we expect from your session?

Nicole: The session curated by the ACE Hub for the BE Summit will bring together three experts holding different roles that are active at different stages of a circular built environment. The session will provide the audience with understanding of application of circular economy prinicples to the built environment; identify ways to plan and design for dissassembly and deconstruction; identify how greenhouse gases can be reduced from such redesign; and importantly, what investors are looking for in circular built environment projects. We are really looking forward to meeting everyone in Melbourne on May 13!

Hear more from and connect face-to-face with Nicole at the Be Summit – don’t miss out, book your ticket here!
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