Towards a Circular Economy

Amsterdam, The Netherlands / istockphoto.com, bloodua

The Netherlands is ramping up plans to achieve a fully circular economy by 2050. This means the country will reimagine existing materials, reduce the extraction of raw materials, and generate “as little waste as possible.”

At this year’s Greenbuild conference in Washington, D.C., Sandra Onwijn, acting director for the transition to a circular economy at the Netherlands Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, outlined how the transformation is progressing and what their experience can teach other countries and industries.

“It won’t be easy, but we owe it to future generations. We need to cut carbon and protect biodiversity. We need to improve water and air quality. And we need to protect material supplies,” she said.

The Dutch government is creating policies, incentives, and public-private partnerships to achieve a few key goals:

  • Use less raw materials overall by reducing extraction and increasing sharing and reuse.
  • Ensure materials and products last longer and are more intensively used. “This involves repairing, repurposing, and refurbishing.”
  • Increase recycleability, recycled material content, and the substitution of bio-based materials.

“Worldwide, the building sector accounts for 50 percent of raw material use, 40 percent of energy use, 30 percent of water use, and 40 percent of waste, and more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions,” Onwijn said.

To reduce the impacts of the building sector in the Netherlands, the government has created new building and infrastructure material performance standards, which they continue to make more stringent.

The standards call for “ensuring the long life span of buildings by design.” And using “renewable and recycled materials.”

The Dutch wants every material to have its own “passport,” which can quickly show where the material came from, how it was made, and how it is taken apart and reused.

The reuse journey of materials will be continuously tracked. “This is really important to achieving a circular economy,” Onwijn said.

Other strategies are being implemented to move circularity forward. The government is now procuring circular products.

And they are creating public-private partnerships to encourage circularity in different industries. In 2018, “all players signed a concrete agreement.” Now, the textiles and plastics industries are also coalescing.

The Netherlands has banned the dumping of many types of materials in landfills. Waste regulations are being used to “phase out the linear economy.”

Onwijn reiterated the need to keep circular economy work practical. The Dutch set up the Holland Circular Hotspot program to facilitate problem solving among public authorities and companies.

They are also promoting their CIRCO program, which “invests in designing for circularity and disassembly.”

The U.S. government is much further behind in creating policies that encourage a circular economy. But built environment groups are making progress and laying the foundation for standardized, transparent materials data and reducing embodied carbon emissions. These are emissions produced by the extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and installation of materials.

Another session at Greenbuild explored efforts to reduce embodied carbon in the U.S. Jessica Bristow from the International Living Future Institute (IFLI), Meghan Lewis with the Carbon Leadership Forum, and Stacy Smedley with Building Transparency outlined progress on a new coalition: the Embodied Carbon Harmonization and Optimization (ECHO) Project.

ECHO Project

ASLA, Climate Positive Design, and 13 other organizations are part of this strategic group, which aims to “ensure all embodied carbon reporting at the whole building and whole project scale in the U.S. — including landscapes and infrastructure — follow the same clear definitions and scopes of included impacts.”

“Building industry and policymakers need clear, accurate, and accessible data for making the best decisions and policies to meaningfully reduce our impact on the environment,” they said.

“We do not have the resources or time to waste in our push toward decarbonization. The key to success is cross-disciplinary collaboration– coming together to create a consistent methodology for reporting and measuring emissions.”

It is important to scale up efforts on universal embodied carbon measurements because the state of California recently updated its building regulations to include embodied carbon requirements and other states and cities are expected to follow suit.

The Biden-Harris administration has also become more involved. It recently announced $100 million in grant funding available to develop environmental product declarations (EPDs). This is driven by the need to collect more accurate data on embodied carbon and “expand market access for low-carbon construction materials.”

Elsewhere at Greenbuild, Cody Finke with Brimstone, Mikaela DeRousseau with Building Transparency, and Ignacio Cariaga with Heidelberg Materials explored the complexities of decarbonizing concrete.

Cement, which is the binder in concrete, is the second most used natural resource on Earth after water. Some 4.3 billion tons of cement are extracted each year, resulting in approximately 30 billion tons of concrete. All this concrete accounts for 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. “If concrete was a country, it would be the third largest polluter in the world after the U.S. and China,” Finke said.

It’s relatively easy to reduce the embodied carbon of concrete by 10-30 percent using existing strategies, DeRousseau argued. These include mixing in higher percentages of slag or fly ash. “The hard part is getting to 100 percent emission reductions,” she said.

Finke said current concrete production has a “chemistry problem.” About 40 percent of emissions are from the furnaces that heat limestone to make cement. Those can be eliminated by switching to electric furnaces powered by renewable energy. The other 60 percent of emissions come from the chemical reactions involved in transforming carbon-rich limestone into cement.

Brimstone has been developing a novel technology. Their process crushes up silicate rocks and uses magnesium to sequester carbon. “One ton of our cement stores one ton of carbon.” He thinks alternative cements need to be scaled up because the U.S. is running out of the slag and fly ash added to concrete; these are largely waste products from coal and steel production.

Brimstone cement sample / Brimstone

Heidelberg Materials explained their approach to carbon capture at a concrete production facility in Alberta, Canada. “While carbon capture alone won’t get us to net-zero, it’s another tool to fall on,” Cariaga said.

The concrete plant will be powered by renewable energy and its own heat. Greenhouse gas emissions will be captured, liquefied, and pumped 1.8 miles (3 kilometers) below ground, under existing aquifers, where the liquid will eventually turn back into limestone.

To support continuous material and manufacturing innovation, more investment in EPDs is needed, DeRousseau said. Current embodied carbon accounting systems need to be harmonized so that designers and policymakers can more easily compare products and make decisions. Embodied carbon will also soon be a factor in federal and state procurement.

One thought on “Towards a Circular Economy

  1. Kyle Brusveen 10/13/2023 / 1:17 pm

    Does anyone else wonder how “one ton of cement can store one ton of carbon”? Would this be pure carbon and not cement? Do they mean two tons of cement has the ability to store one ton of carbon within it? or do they mean for each ton of cement we use we can store an additional ton of carbon associated with it?

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