Making the Most of What we Have (Waste Not Want Not)
I haven’t always banged the sustainability drum as loudly as I do now, in fact when I started in the construction industry over twenty years ago it wasn’t something I thought too much about. However throughout my time in the sector I became more aware of how unsustainable our way of life generally is and within that the contribution of the construction sector to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. The more aware I became the more the problem became apparent, it was like buying a red bike and then noticing red bicycles everywhere you go… news articles left, right and centre about the huge volume of resources the sector uses, reports about what percentage of that goes to waste, headlines about the industries massive carbon footprint and buildings being demolished far from the lifespan they had been designed to be around for…
It doesn’t paint a very rosy picture, but hold on, this blog is for Happy Eco News, where is the positive story?
As I learned more about the issues, I also began to learn more about the solutions and that’s when I came across the Circular Economy. There is no single magic ‘fix-all’ solution to the climate crisis, but the Circular Economy is a good starting point – designing a system with zero waste, zero pollution and ensuring that materials are kept at their highest value possible for as long as possible not only makes good sense environmentally and societally, it also makes good sense economically too. Add into the mix the intent to be regenerative and restorative – putting back what has been taken out to ensure a healthy, resilient system – and the picture starts to look more positive.
To explain Circular Economy in a bit more detail, our current one way or ‘linear’ economy works on a ‘Take stuff out of the ground, Make things with it, Use the things, Waste or throw those things away’ system. This means things are thrown away after use, sometimes only a single use. A Circular Economy (CE) encompasses the whole life of things, including extending the ‘Use’ phase for as long as possible. CE thinking means designing things to be ‘Used for ages’, then passed to someone to be ‘Reused for a while longer’, then ‘Repaired and keep using’, followed by ‘Refurbished and keep using’, then modified and/or dismantled to be ‘Repurposed and keep using’, shredded and ‘Recycled to make other, different, products’ and then finally ‘incinerated for energy or composted to replenish’ depending on the materials.
The same applies to buildings, they need to be designed with renewable or secondary (non-virgin) materials to be as flexible and adaptable as possible, allowing for easy maintenance and repair, to ensure they last as long as possible before being fully or partially disassembled, the parts being reused / repurposed or recycled wherever feasible, and then a redeveloped or new building is built in its place.
The looping shown in principle 2 above keeps materials at their highest value possible for as long as possible – decreasing our consumption of resources, and crucially also reducing our carbon footprint. A more formal way of saying this is that a Circular Economy designs out waste and pollution, aims to keep products, components, and materials looping at their highest utility and value at all times and is intentionally restorative and regenerative. By applying these principles, we are moving away from just doing ‘less bad’ – for example reducing pollution levels – and focusing on doing ‘more good’ – not polluting at all and in fact planting new woodland areas as well.
Circularity is not new, or necessarily complex, but it requires a big change in mindset and behaviour. We have become too used to our ‘throw away’ society, and common behaviours like “make-do and mend” from our parents or grand-parents era and the skills that went along with it are seen much less now. Creating a more environmentally sustainable, circular and fair future requires changes in the way we do things, as individuals, communities and businesses, to enable us to get back to reusing and sharing, repairing and refurbishing, which can seem arduous and sometimes difficult.
We need to reprogramme our decision making to move further back up the waste hierarchy (as per the 10 ‘Rs’ shown). Do I really need a new bike or can I get mine Repaired? If it’s beyond repair then perhaps buy a Refurbished one… or if you really don’t use it that often then Refuse to buy a new one and have a look whether you can hire one (sharing the resource) locally for the rare occasions you want to go for a bike ride
For individuals, thanks to organisations like eBay now firmly established, there are avenues to help us reuse items that have many uses still left in them, be it a jumper or an electric power tool, or indeed with more Libraries of Things being set up not even needing to purchase a power tool but hiring it for a short duration instead. However for businesses the options can be less evident.
The theory and practice behind circularity has inspired the creation of many new businesses, for The Rebuild Site our motivation was to help change mindsets and reduce waste in the construction industry. The start of our story was two of the directors meeting at a Circular Economy conference about four years ago. Fast forward to 2021, when the two founding directors decided there was too much talk about waste in the construction industry and not enough action and The Rebuild Site was born.
The Rebuild Site has been set up with circular economy principles at its heart, taking surplus materials from construction sites and putting them to good use. The company’s purpose is to encourage everyone to rethink how to better use materials, reclaim materials that are currently being thrown away or down cycled, and reuse as much excess and ‘nearly-new’ materials as possible, creating value in what is often treated as waste. At the end of the day there is no such thing as waste – it’s just a resource in the wrong place.
Currently 13% of construction materials go directly to landfill without being used. By encouraging the reuse of existing surplus materials we are doing our bit to reduce ‘waste’ and lower the amount of carbon used in creating new materials. The surplus materials we pick up go to community groups and charities to help with their building, gardening, crafting and repair projects. We also sell nearly new and surplus materials to trades and members of the public at reduced prices – perfect for those DIY project people are planning to get underway!
Whilst initially our focus is on keeping the value in materials, saving them from the skip and redirecting them to be reused in projects, we are aware that this is only helping to solve the tail end of the problem, it is not fixing the cause. Fundamentally we need to design out waste wherever possible, in product design, service design and process design. Our mission, as part of building relationships with contractors and sites to take their excess materials, is also to raise awareness and educate the construction sector about the circular economy and with it the alternative models and materials available. Additionally, with the work we are doing within communities we also have a great opportunity to reach out to a broader audience and introduce circular thinking and practices beyond the construction sector.
The Rebuild Site has had a lot of local interest in and around Carlisle where our first depot is based, and we are very excited to be opening to sole traders on the 29th January and to the general public in March. Through collaboration and partnership with other organisations we plan to broaden our offer at the depot to include not only the purchase of materials for building projects (be it for a new extension or a new bird box!), but also repair workshops, tool hire, creative project sessions and other complementary circular activities and initiatives.
To find out more, be it a quote to take your excess materials, to volunteer at our depot , to register a charity request for materials or to talk about how your organisation could work collaboratively with us, please visit www.rebuildsite.co.uk