: IS Thought Leadership by Danni Formella
and Alison Price
I think it’s safe to say that we all know how to build something. We take a resource, we process it, and we’re usually left with a) something usable, and b) something not usable. The thing that we can’t use, we usually throw in the bin, because who needs that awkwardly shaped leftover piece of wood that is too small to build anything new with? We see this process on a large industrial scale as well. We turn our coal into energy and fly ash. We turn our clay into bricks, our bricks into houses, and our broken bricks are sent to the tip. We dig up our contaminated soil, truck it away to be dumped into landfill, and bring in freshly manufactured soil substitute that we can plant things in. So what do coal, clay and soil have in common? They are all virgin resources - but more importantly, they are finite.
The current linear model of our industrial economy uses up our finite virgin resources and leaves us with a lot of waste that can further contaminate the resources that remain. For example, C&D waste goes into landfills and is buried with soil or day cover, making that soil unusable. Rubbish may be burned, releasing harmful gases into our atmosphere. And precious land is taken up by waste infrastructure, that while necessary, isn’t necessarily sustainable. So what is the solution?
The words “Circular Economy” are thrown around a lot in the infrastructure space. While it seems like the new, trendy phrase around town, in my experience, many industry stakeholders don’t actually know what it means, or how to implement it in their projects. We have been tied up in the common linear model for a long time now, and change is difficult. But with our resources depleting more quickly every year, it’s time now to examine how we as an industry can transform our work process and adopt the circular economy model.
The virgin resource I deal with is soil. 95% of the food we eat comes from our topsoil, but some experts believe that if we don’t change how we treat our soil, we could run out in about 60 years. I will hopefully still be alive in 60 years, and the thought of seeing the end of our topsoil is, quite frankly, terrifying. So how can we use the circular economy model to find opportunities in our infrastructure projects to recycle our resources (not just soil, but green waste, rubble etc.) and leave a future for our next generation?
Firstly, identify the virgin resources you are currently using and the wastes you are currently disposing of. Let’s say the resource is soil. Secondly, you want to identify why you’re not reusing the resource, and what you’re using instead. For soil, the reason would typically be that it is contaminated, and the substitute would typically be imported manufactured topsoil. What’s wrong with using imported topsoil? From what I have seen, a) you don’t necessarily know what it’s manufactured from, b) results can be inconsistent, c) you’re adding trucks to the road and emissions to the atmosphere by taking your old soil away and bringing in new soil, and d) you’re adding to landfill when you’re dumping your contaminated soil. But if we can’t use the substitute, how do we reuse the initial resource? How do we turn unsuitable into suitable? The solution doesn’t have to be difficult - we identify the core problem and address that specifically. In my example, the core problem is that the soil is contaminated, so we find a way to safely immobilise or remove the contamination out of the soil. All of a sudden, our virgin resource is a brand new resource that can be used to plant plants in and ensure they grow. The plants then decompose and add organic matter to the soil that microbes can feed upon and sequester carbon, slowing or stopping the release of CO2
into the atmosphere.
Replacing the original resource with a new improved version increases the sustainability of the resource and closes the industrial loop. You can follow this same thought process for any of your resources. For example, stripped green waste and rubble can be reused to make compost or road base respectively, thereby reducing the use of virgin materials to create imported compost or road base, and taking trucks off local roads which can reduce wear and tear on infrastructure as well as reduce carbon emissions.
It’s time now to think about the things we traditionally regard as ‘waste’ and have a good look at the linear economy that we keep doing because it's fast or convenient. Think about the things we traditionally import and export offsite, the things we purchase unnecessarily, and the things we dump. How can we introduce the circular economy model? How can we get others to do so? From my perspective, we in the infrastructure industry have a rare opportunity to be our own waste generators and circular economy clients. The scale of our projects means that any change, no matter how small, is going to have a significant impact on the sustainability of our resources and what we leave for future generations. It may even be time to change the word ‘opportunity’ to ‘obligation’.
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