With an ambitious pipeline of infrastructure programmes, the UK is in an ideal position to begin its transition to the circular economy.
As plans for numerous schemes develop concurrently, there will be increasing pressure on the local availability of construction materials and associated logistical pinch-points.
Embedding circular economy principles in infrastructure projects could not only help build greater resilience in supply chains and insulate operators against commodity price fluctuations, but also generate cost efficiencies and positive environmental impacts.
Essentially, applying the circular economy to infrastructure involves taking a whole-life approach to the development of projects, with assets and materials kept at their highest value for as long as possible. Given the importance of the optioneering, feasibility and early design stages of schemes to the transition to the circular economy, procurement will be a critical stage of the process.
Prove their worth
Procurement policies that evaluate the ‘whole-life value’ of materials throughout commissioning, maintenance and disposal – and not just on price alone – will be critical. Evaluation processes that reward suppliers who can demonstrate circular economy experience, for example, would certainly encourage uptake.
If these types of changes are applied to the procurement activities of infrastructure owners and operators, their suppliers could be asked to demonstrate how their design and construction methods will encompass the circular economy, including construction material choices and the processes for quantifying their total benefits.
“As more infrastructure operators develop their thinking, supply chains will be expected to support them through innovation and scaling up demonstration projects”
Existing technical standards can sometimes stifle innovation by being too prescriptive, leading to tenders based on familiar approaches. Greater engagement between operators and their suppliers could result in new ways of thinking, with organisations sharing the risk in bringing in new materials or service models.
It remains the case that bringing circular economy principles into the mainstream will only be achieved through cross-sector collaboration. Organisations will need to work together to develop a consistent approach to procurement across major projects if such principles are to be truly embedded into infrastructure design and operation.
Setting a circular path
Many infrastructure owners and operators already recognise this and are working together to share knowledge and best practice.
Last week the Aecom-led Major Infrastructure – Resource Optimisation Group (MI-ROG), which includes some of the UK’s largest infrastructure owners and operators, issued a white paper discussing the risks and opportunities associated with changes in procurement processes that help promote a circular economy approach.
As more and more infrastructure owners and operators develop their thinking around the recoverable aspects of infrastructure assets and integrate that knowledge into procurement, their supply chains will be expected to support them through innovation and the scaling up of demonstration projects.
Including procurement criteria focused on the circular economy from the outset on projects could be the catalyst for a supply chain-wide shift in UK infrastructure.
Robert Spencer is sustainability director, environment and ground engineering, at Aecom