Skip to main content


UKREiiF 2024: A ‘practical action’ approach to the circular economy

16 May 2024

Tim Danson

Tim Danson


The pathway to a circular economy requires that we re-think our built environment, those who use it, and how we manage its numerous components. However, with EU construction and demolition processes accounting for nearly one third of all waste generated, making a dent in these statistics can feel daunting. Here, our Director of Sustainability and Energy Tim Danson, discusses how a pragmatic approach to circularity can help aid real estate and infrastructure businesses, benefiting wider value chains and the communities we serve.

Regeneration and public spaces

Reuse, reimagine, repurpose

Globally, resource consumption has reached a dizzying height, with more than 100 billion tonnes of resource consumed annually. Alarmingly, only 7% of these resources are cycled back into the economy at their end of useful life, underscoring a critical gap in our efforts for sustainability. This reality highlights the urgent need for integrating circular economy principles more comprehensively across industry processes, helping mitigate a wide range of impacts and fostering a more sustainable future.

The construction industry has a particularly pivotal role in the circular economy, as it remains heavily reliant on the use of materials, products and technologies. Within a linear construction economy, over-extraction of natural resources and their disposal to landfill remain two of the most significant challenges that need to be addressed.

Given that approximately 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions are linked to the construction, use, and demolition of buildings, the sector's commitment to circularity is also crucial to achieving our net zero commitments. A recent report from the Circular Buildings Coalition exemplifies this statement, by estimating that a circular building scenario could, between 2024-2050, ‘reduce the volume of materials used between by 6.7Gt (nine times the construction sector impact of the EU, in 2024), and result in 25% less carbon emissions when compared to a business-as-usual scenario.’

Such a step change in the way we deliver and manage buildings (and the wider built environment) requires deep, systemic thinking. Implicitly, this also requires a comprehensive understanding of our value chains, our delivery partner neighbours, and the wider range of stakeholders that are intertwined in our day-to-day work.

Accordingly, the importance of building strong, resilient relationships cannot be overstated; it is through these connections that we foster collaboration and drive meaningful change. Challenging our norms, piloting new approaches, and carefully but firmly pushing boundaries are all necessary to advance and make circular practice more commonplace.


Currently, in the UK, legislation with the potential to influence circular practices in the built environment remains heavily focussed on waste management. It does not offer the frameworks, levers, mechanisms or language that can foster real circular and closed-loop action. And worse, it often creates ambiguity in definition along the way.

Across the UK, policies and practice also vary significantly by region: London, Glasgow and the West Midlands have, for example, developed circular economy route maps and are starting to increasingly specify circular economy requirements into planning requirements. For many reasons (lack of skills and resource, commercial crises – to name a few), other UK regions are less advanced in their thinking and practice, which therefore dilutes the uniformity and effectiveness of action.

Whilst organisations like the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) and the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) provide extensive guidance, the sector remains largely unregulated on a national scale.

This patchwork of planning policy and regulation raises a crucial question: how can organisations take practical action in an environment that does not uniformly enforce the principles of a circular economy?

Circular thinking as the starting point

Circular thinking can kickstart practical action. It requires we understand the key principles and application points at which we can make real change. For example, we need to focus on the whole lifecycle and full potential of materials and assets, rather than capital cost or single life use. Applying the principles of the 9 R's (refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, repair, refurbish, remanufacture, recycle, and recover) is also critical to our strategic and tactical approaches, moving us away from the (what is now quite a tired) waste hierarchy model. How many of us start out with ‘let’s build nothing’ as our primary mantra, for example?

Our focus also needs to evolve from not only selecting lean and low impact materials but designing with consideration for the adaptation and recovery of built environment resources across project lifecycles, especially at end-of-life. How many, and what proportion, of our buildings can be deconstructed and demounted without damage to the resources from which they are made? Not many, I’d tender.

Circular thinking also pushes us towards other new ways of doing business. Progress will be achieved where we can digitalise processes and services; instead of ‘buying new’, we adopt leasing, hiring and ‘products as a service’ models, increase manufacturer and owner responsibility, and use of regenerative materials.


We also need to factor in how we better achieve self-sufficiency as part of circular practices; local production, management and reuse of materials have the potential to reduce our reliance on national and international supply chains, and the associated costs and risks.

By thinking global but acting local, or applying the ethos of the ‘15-minute cities’ concept, we increase the potential of creating resource management streams that will revolutionise our urban and rural centres. Imagine, for example, an industry, region or city that makes and cycles its own resources, with limited or no reliance on the wider value chain. Is this an unrealistic utopia, or a practical and necessary future?

Naturally, in application, all these approaches require us to balance cost, safety, durability and flexibility, as well as the needs and wants of different members of society, but this is the point on the horizon that we must all aim for. Equally inherent to these concepts are the legal, commercial and logistical challenges that allow us to effectively transfer ownership, responsibility and benefits from sustainable resource consumption across project phases. This remains a task that will be greatly enhanced with the right voices and actors (early contractor involvement, tenant engagement, landlord buy in, future site users) involved from the outset.

While some organisations within real estate and infrastructure are starting to adopt circular thinking (for example, bringing together local expertise and resources through national framework models), there is still plenty for us to do.

A call to arms

Like any well-functioning machine, creating a circular future cannot be realised where individuals and organisations advance in isolation. It requires different roles across the public, private and third sector economies to come together and act.

Our policy makers, planners, designers, procurers, constructors, owner-operators, clients and their value chains all need to understand their respective roles in a circular economy. Only then can they make bold but steady steps to designing and building healthier, lower impact, more efficient, and user-focused environments.

Tim Danson will lead a panel at UKREiiF 2024, focusing on practical applications of the circularity within the real estate and infrastructure industry.

Discussions will feature real-life examples and insights from specialists who are actively implementing these approaches. The session will also provide attendees with actionable solutions and strategies that can be applied to their own projects.

Join us to gain valuable knowledge and examples of circular practice that you can adopt and apply in your work. For more details, head to our informative news item.

Tim Danson

Speak to our team