Can infrastructure developments join the circular economy?


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The traditional linear model of production, sometimes called the ‘take-make-waste’ approach, is dying. In its place, new ‘circular’ approaches are emerging, which minimise waste and make the most of precious resources. Can infrastructure and major projects reduce, reuse and recycle?

Shifting to a circular economy is essential in a world where resources are finite – but it won’t be without its challenges.

That was the message from experts at a recent University of Melbourne Circular Economy for Infrastructure panel discussion. They stressed that integrated planning, realistic costs and developing an appetite for risk will all play a role in the shift.

They also pointed out that, until recently, Australia has not been forced to consider resource scarcity in the way that other parts of the world with less room for landfill, like Europe, have. As a result, a mind-shift is still required in some quarters.

Perhaps one of the biggest of these is expanding how we think of the circular economy to go beyond just reusing and recycling materials. It is also about reducing consumption; considering whether products and infrastructure should be manufactured or constructed in the first place.

“The whole waste hierarchy starts with reducing; a lot of products shouldn’t be manufactured in the first place,” said Professor Mahdi Disfani from the University’s infrastructure engineering department.

Factoring disposal into manufacturing

When it is necessary to manufacture or build something new, end-of-life needs to be carefully considered throughout the planning process. And, according to Phil Brunson, Senior Engineer at Arup, recycling materials should not be the default option.

“We should be designing structures for disassembly or adaptability first, and thinking about how materials can be reused or recycled after that,” he said.

“If we’re going to implement circular economy principles within every phase of the project, we need to take responsibility within our own disciplines to plan and apply those principles and proactively collaborate with people around us.”

This thinking can be challenging in Australia, particularly on major infrastructure projects with multiple partners. But it is happening more and more, said Ari Hammerschlag, Sustainability Team Leader, Building Engineering at GHD.

He pointed out that circular planning also includes managing resources like water and energy as efficiently as possible.

“For example, facilities that use waste to create energy can be located next to industrial parks to provide energy to the site from its own waste, so there is no loss of energy through long transmission,” he said.

Energy for electric vehicles represents another pressing area where integrated planning for circular energy use is becoming increasingly important.

As more electric vehicles hit Australian roads in coming years, there will be a substantial rise in peak electricity demand. In fact, said Dr Patricia Lavieri, a transport engineering expert also based at the University, if all vehicles became electric tomorrow “we’d have double the electricity requirements than we have today”.

“So electricity production needs to happen from a circular economy perspective because we need to maximise use of renewable energy if we’re going to double the demand,” she said.

Integrated approaches to planning

This will require a new approach to planning, with energy and transport requirements integrated much more than they ever have been before.

“For example, solar is cheaper to produce during midday, when most cars are parked at workplaces, so we will need to have correct infrastructure placed at workplaces,” she said.

With all these changes, Professor Disfani pointed out the practical need to make sure costs are kept realistic.

“Products need to perform at required level and be available at high volume,” he said, drawing on the example of a permeable pavement product he has developed from recycled tyres.

“If we want our research to make an impact we need to have an understanding of the costs of competitor products. Researchers need to think about whether it will financially make sense to their product.”

He also pointed to the need for decision-makers to accept a degree of risk in the transition to the circular economy.

“With every new product comes a degree of risk.

“But we don’t want any more landfill, so we need to move out of our comfort zones and try new products and new ways of working if we’re going to solve this problem.”

First published by the Faculty of Engineering and IT, University of Melbourne

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First published on 19 October 2021.

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