Circular economy crucial for London’s ‘good growth’

Wednesday 5 December 2018

The circular economy needs popular figures like Rihanna in order to get wider public understanding and take-up, and do what the Blue Planet did for plastics. But it also needs exemplar projects of the sort being built by Merton to demonstrate how leadership and fundamental change can help to meet stipulations in the London Plan, make the capital zero carbon by 2050 and end the concept of ‘single use buildings’ for good.

Those were some of the key points to emerge in a fascinating discussion at NLA yesterday about how to embed the circular economy in London. The suggestion that only when somebody like Rihanna can popularise the principle in song would it reach enough of the public came from Sunand Prasad following his opening talk on the cultural shifts required. The pop star should write a song about the circular economy, he joked, to increase the demand side of the equation, rather than the supply side that makes up most of the conference audience. 

‘Making best use of what you have, and reusing it, is the most effective way to be circular’ said Prasad, ‘don’t demolish, just reuse’.  The linear economy has bad effects – bad growth, Prasad said, but although the UK is on track to become 27% ‘circular’ in a few years, reusing more, demolishing less and incentivising circularity hold the key. ‘If London is going to have good growth it needs to adopt the circular economy’, said Prasad. ‘It’s as simple as that’. An economy that incentives circularity will ‘unleash innovative inventive capacities in us which are absolutely amazing’, he added, so it was good that the challenges were ‘captivating’, and ‘interesting puzzles’, requiring child-like imagination to transformation and re-use, rather than ‘solemn obedience’ to codes and regulations.

Clare Ollerenshaw, Circular Economy Manager for the London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) agreed that innovation represented a real opportunity for ‘people to get their teeth into knotty issues’ and gain the £7bn of net benefit her organisation has calculated adopting a circular economy will bring London by 2036. AECOM sustainability director David Cheshire said one of the problems was that we are ‘digging stuff out of the ground more and more’, with mining for bauxite, for example, in the Amazon rainforest representing a wasteful, ‘linear’ approach that should be replaced by more refurbishment and design for adaptability as exemplified by some of the historic buildings at Argent’s King’s Cross. In the future, with dwindling resources, buildings need to be designed with elements that can be retrieved and reused, just like in Victorian times, Cheshire added, but policies on the circular economy in the draft London Plan represented a ‘really brave move’.

Merton is a good example of this circular approach in practice. Director of Merton Regeneration at Clarion Housing, Paul Quinn described his firm’s approach to applying a circular approach to urban regeneration, with plans to build some 2,900 homes on three estates in the borough, trebling density at the High Path Estate as a ‘test case’ for the principle in the industry. ‘Our intention is to have the circular economy in the DNA of the project, right from the start’, he said, building ‘in layers’ and adopting things like standardisation, MMC and ‘designing for deconstruction’. While Joanna Williams, director of Circular Cities Hub and Associate Professor at The Bartlett School of Planning at UCL said her work includes looking at ‘wastage’, devising standards and looking at common challenges in the drive towards circular, Dan Epstein, consultant director of sustainability at Useful Projects said the biggest problem we face is that we live in a ‘linear economy and linear world’. We need to rethink the way we design, said Epstein, at designing out waste and looking at ‘end of life’ with far too many buildings not designed for longevity, he said. ‘We’re building smaller and smaller bespoke buildings in a world that is changing more rapidly’. Change could come through focusing on 20-30 different projects, retaining that ‘learning’ and building momentum.

At Old Oak and Park Royal, said Arup associate director Rainer Zimman, a circular economy scoping study looks at the 650 hectare area and its potential to implement the circular economy principles across resource flows, as well as in the potential for vertical farming, modular design and BIM. ‘We need to do things so that the circular economy becomes a bit more tangible’, he said. ‘Adaptability is essential’. Hoare Lea principal sustainability consultant Richard Harper said that it was important that the buildings we design today don’t become the waste product of the future, building in adaptability and using more off-site assembly for its boon to the health and safety and efficiency pictures.

Discussion included an observation from from architect Sarah Wigglesworth in the audience over the need for waste buildings to be ‘rethought’, perhaps with more community resource, and how more could take the lead of Exeter Council, which has decided to commission all buildings to the Passivhaus standard. 

Finally, Canary Wharf Group head of sustainability Martin Gettings again took up the notion of the need to influence people and behaviours, which his organisation is doing in part through the ‘Breaking the plastic habit’ initiative. ‘It’s not buildings that have bad habits’, he said. ‘It’s us…We just have go to start doing this as business as usual. We have to find a way to enthuse the end-users of the built environment’.

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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Embedding the circular economy in London


Circular Economy responds to the need to create less waste and manage the limited resources we have on our planet in a more efficient way. Principles include replacing the end-of-life concept with restoration, a shift towards the use of renewable energy, the elimination of toxic chemicals and the overall aim of eliminating waste.