Pursuing a Circular Economy

Understanding how materials, design, and planning can increase sustainability
 
Sponsored by Armstrong Ceiling and Wall Solutions
By Jessica Jarrard
 
1 AIA LU/Elective; 1 AIBD P-CE; 1 GBCI CE Hour; 0.1 IACET CEU*; AAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; AANB 1 Hour of Core Learning; AAPEI 1 Structured Learning Hour; This course can be self-reported to the AIBC, as per their CE Guidelines.; MAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; NLAA 1 Hour of Core Learning; NSAA 1 Hour of Core Learning; NWTAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; OAA 1 Learning Hour; SAA 1 Hour of Core Learning

Learning Objectives:

  1. Explain the difference between a linear and circular economy.
  2. Recognize how the building industry can be part of a circular economy.
  3. Describe how the building industry drives reduce, reuse, and recycle processes.
  4. Discuss how materials, design, and planning allow buildings to reduce their carbon footprints.
  5. Identify programs, initiatives, and projects that promote sustainability.

This course is part of the Sustainability Academy

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Recycling, Reducing, and Reusing

After buildings have been renovated, deconstructed, or demolished, any material that cannot be recycled or reused will end up in the landfill. In the linear economy of “take, make, dispose,” the landfill was the end of the line.

In the time of the linear economy, recycling options were not readily available or were more costly than taking materials to the landfill. Now in the circular economy, landfill costs are consistently increasing as landfill space becomes scarcer and people become more interested in sustainable solutions. The public adamantly opposes landfills near their homes, thus making it difficult to find space for garbage and material disposals after demolitions.

Material waste that cannot be recycled does not always end up in landfills. Sometimes it can end up in the ocean. The world’s largest “landfill” is currently in the Pacific Ocean and is estimated to be anywhere from more than 3,100 square miles large to more than twice the size of Texas. This massive floating island of waste is known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and poses a threat to marine life and ecosystems.

Recycling and reuse of materials can not only be cost-effective by saving the contractor landfill fees, but it can also help reduce a building’s carbon footprint. Policymakers and local government entities are recognizing the long-term value of reduced carbon footprints in cities and states across America. Many major cities and some states have green initiatives in place to reduce their carbon footprint by as early as 2030. While energy consumption and usage is a big part of that footprint, materials and green space also play into the equation.

Recycling old materials into new materials, recycling packaging for building materials, reducing the amount of manufacturing needed to make materials, and reusing existing materials all contribute to the circular economy by reducing waste and also by fueling the building industry’s economy.

Responsibilities of Construction Professionals and Manufacturers

Due to the high volume of materials that are used by the building industry, it is important that waste management plans are considered early and often. Waste can occur during the manufacturing process, when the building is in operation, or at the end of a material’s life cycle, contributing to greenhouse gases and the industry’s carbon footprint.

By designing and manufacturing products with longer lifespans, the need for recycling and/or replacement is reduced.

When a product does need to be recycled, companies that are already set up for manufacturing a product can potentially use their existing processes to recycle and make new products on existing equipment, as is the case with ceiling-to-ceiling products, where recycled ceiling material is actually an ingredient used to manufacture new ceiling panels. When a contractor is ready to recycle materials, start by contacting the manufacturer of the product or centers that are already set up to recycle the material. For example, to recycle scrap metal, contact a metal recycler or metal manufacturer. Asphalt pavement and shingles can potentially be taken by an asphalt plant. Concrete and brick waste can go to a clean fill site. Wood waste can be turned into compost or sent to a wood-chipping facility and then resold to a consumer for future landscaping projects. Ceiling tiles can be returned to their manufacturer to make new high-performing products.

How the Building Industry Affects Emissions and Carbon Outputs

According to The Carbon Leadership Forum, the world builds the equivalent of an entire New York City every month. This level of growth and development can have a huge impact on the environment if not done responsibly. Construction processes can create waste and pollution that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and ultimately result in speeding up the effects of climate change. Therefore, reducing the carbon emissions of materials is imperative.

Understanding Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The atmosphere surrounding the earth contains many types of gases, including those known as “greenhouse gases.” Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases are different examples of greenhouses gases that are emitted into the atmosphere. According to the EPA, in 2018, methane made up 10 percent of the gas emissions, while nitrous oxide made up 7 percent, and fluorinated gases made up 3 percent. Carbon dioxide emissions were the source of 81 percent of emissions, which is four times the emissions of the other three types combined.

Image courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency

Total emissions in 2018 = 6,677 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent.

Carbon dioxide (CO2), the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases, enters the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and oil), solid waste, trees and other biological materials, and also as a result of certain chemical reactions, like the ones used to manufacture cement. Plants can help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by absorbing (or sequestering) it as part of the biological carbon cycle.

Methane (CH4) is emitted during the production and transport of coal, natural gas, and oil. Methane emissions result from the decay of organic waste in solid waste landfills. Methane is also created by livestock and other agricultural practices.

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is emitted during agricultural and industrial activities, combustion of fossil fuels and solid waste, as well as during treatment of wastewater.

Fluorinated gasses are powerful greenhouse gases that are emitted during a variety of industrial processes. Examples of these gasses include hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride, and nitrogen trifluoride, all of which are synthetic, powerful greenhouse gases that are emitted from a variety of industrial processes. While typically emitted in smaller quantities, they are extremely potent and are sometimes referred to as high global warming potential (GWP) gases.

Together, these greenhouse gases absorb and retain heat from the sun while also regulating the earth’s climate by holding warmth in an atmospheric layer around the planet's surface. This phenomenon is known as the “greenhouse effect.”

Greenhouse gases are crucial to making earth a habitable planet. Without these gases, the temperature on earth would be 5 degrees Fahrenheit instead of the current 60 degrees Fahrenheit. However, an excess of greenhouse gases can raise global temperatures to the extent that they become harmful.

Greenhouse gases are caused by multiple factors, many of which are naturally occurring without human activity. Some contributing factors can be traced back to solid waste as well as the manufacturer, distribution, and use of products that result in manufacturing waste as well as solid waste.

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Originally published in Architectural Record

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