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Circular economy trends: 3 key opportunities we can’t afford to waste

Did you know that cities consume more than 75% of all natural resources? Or that we’d have to build a city the size of Paris – every week – for the next 30 years to accommodate global population growth?

Transformational design, planning and engineering solutions are therefore critical to changing the processes and materials used in the built environment – with a mindset shift from traditional linear methodologies to circularity innovations. Here, we look at three key circular economy trends that will shape the future of urbanisation, sustainability and digitalisation.

Trend #1: Growth thinking

Turning waste into an asset

Dredging. The word conjures up the disposal of something worthless or unwanted, like a waste product. But in a circular economy, not only does it play a role – it can become valuable in its own right.

“Our water-passing tile is made from dredged sediments,” says Wies van Lieshout, co-founder of the Dutch start-up Waterweg. “It’s a circular, climate-adaptive product. The tiles are made from river sediment waste and provide a solution for flooding in cities. Dredging is the tool we use to make an impact.”

The summer of 2021 saw flooding across Europe, and together with climate change is not a problem that is likely to go away. Recycling alone no longer suffices for achieving an economy that is truly circular.

During budgeting and financial planning, we really have to go beyond creating spaces for production and employment – it’s a complete mind shift. “We have to think about the future of spaces and cities. It’s not only about closing loops.

Kathleen Van de Werf – Business Development Manager at BUUR (part of Sweco)

Although the world’s cities currently occupy less than 4% of Earth’s surface, they are home to 55% of the global population. They consume more than 75% of our natural resources, produce more than 50% of all global waste, and emit 60-80% of global greenhouse gases. These are all symptoms of a take–make–dispose linear economic model. And cities continue to grow: by 2050, two-thirds of us will live in cities.

  1. More than 50% of CO₂ emissions from heavy industry can be cut through a circular economy

  2. Circular economy initiatives could reduce 40% of CO₂ emissions generated by production of cement, plastics, steel and aluminium for infrastructure

  3. Refurbishment could achieve up to 59% reductions in carbon emissions

Trend #2: Circular thinking

Meeting the European circular promise

In March 2020, the European Commission adopted the Circular Economy Action Plan as a part of the European Green Deal with the goal to achieve a carbon-neutral, sustainable, non-toxic and fully circular economy by 2050.

As a part of the plan, 70% of all construction waste must be recycled from 2020 onwards, accelerating the construction industry’s switch from a linear to a circular strategy.

Many European countries have presented an agenda of their own. In 2016, Finland became the first country in the world to prepare a strategic national roadmap for a circular economy by 2035. Denmark followed, launching its circular economy strategy in 2018 for full implementation by 2022. The U.K. is another example, with generally the same plan as the European Commission’s.

In 2021, an international alliance called the Global Alliance on Circular Economy and Resource Efficiency (GACERE) was formed to drive the global circular conversion. A growing number of cities have also prepared circular economy plans, roadmaps or declarations, several of which pre-date the 2020 Circular Economy Action Plan. Amsterdam, London, Glasgow, Copenhagen – these are just some of the cities recognising the need for cities with definitive plans to increase circularity within their own urban resource systems.

These plans re-think cities as circular resource systems, and identify action plans to turn this thinking into reality.

Trend #3: Regenerative thinking

Creating scalable, circular systems

More than half of the EU’s CO₂ emissions from heavy industry could be cut by adopting a circular economy. In an ambitious scenario, a full 296 million tonnes out of 530 million tonnes could be cut by 2050, according to the Swedish consultancy firm Material Economics.

Such plans also translate into purely economic gains. The total cost of providing goods and services in key EU value chains, such as mobility, housing and food, could be slashed by as much as EUR 535 billion each year by shifting to a circular economy. Moreover, a circular economy in Europe has the potential to boost the EU’s GDP by an additional 0.5% by 2030 and create roughly 700,000 jobs.

Building a city the size of Paris – every week – for the next 30 years may sound like a preposterous plan and an outrageous waste of resources. But this is exactly the scale that’s needed to build infrastructure capable of accommodating a global population expected to grow by 22% to 9.7 billion by 2050. It is estimated that 60% of the infrastructure needed to meet that growth does not exist today. It is not very hard to imagine the strain on the environment and the scarcity of materials that such a daunting challenge would lead to given the current trajectory of consumption.

Industry needs to move faster – and smarter. In our full Circular Economy Trends Report, we place the spotlight on a host of new, innovative ways to achieve a circular construction sector, through reuse, repurposing, recycling and closing loops.

We also highlight the need for a circular systems approach, which considers not just individual projects but embraces collective initiatives with all relevant stakeholders. In our view, achieving the highest levels of circularity demands a complete mindset shift.