Measuring resources consumption is a prerequisite for Circular Economy

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In 2020, € 88 million will be set aside to boost the circular economy. But how can circularity be measured? Read the blog of Bram Adema and Bert van Renselaar below.

Boosting the circular economy

The Budget Memorandum presented by the government on Budget Day earmarks € 88 million for 2020 to boost the circular economy. This was a nice gesture and it remains important to boost good initiatives. However, there is no clear vision of how circularity can be measured. Only when such a vision exists can the circular ambitions for 2050 be specified. Without this measurement, the circular economy remains an abstract concept, which means that the real impact of initiatives is unclear. The first practical measurements of the consumption of resources in the built environment show that new buildings quickly use two to three times as much resources as existing buildings that have been renovated. In addition, it appears that the burning of fossil fuels is responsible for about two-thirds of the resources consumption. These insights can help to determine priorities and to choose direction in making the Dutch built environment more circular.

Use of virgin resources

The design of a circular economy is badly needed because the supply of resources is being exhausted. Every year we extract many new (also called virgin) resources from the earth and then throw them away. These are not only gold, oil and fresh water, but also nature, space and clean air. These resources are lost forever or can be recovered only at very high cost. We now use 1.7 times more resources than the earth can produce annually. By the end of July this year, on Earth Overshoot Day, we had already used up everything for the entire year. The only alternative is to move to a circular economy in which all our resources are reusable or renewable.


Circular: 0 kilograms of new resources

The circular economy can be defined as follows: zero kilograms of new resources are taken from the earth and zero kilograms of existing resources are discarded, buried under a road or burned. In order to know how many kilograms of resources we are currently extracting and to determine what we need to do to reduce it to zero, it must be made measurable. This compared with the profitability of a company in euros or the measurement of emissions in tonnes of CO2. Global warming could not be tackled globally until greenhouse gas emissions had been made measurable.

Built environment largest consumer

One of the largest consumers of resources is the built environment. In addition to the large amount of fossil fuels, buildings are also a major consumer of many other resources. In the past twelve months, we have counted the resources consumption of many buildings in kilograms. Efficient or almost circular buildings consume around 13 kg per m2 of building. Average buildings consume almost 100 kg per m2 per year. Most circular buildings do not use fossil fuels, emit almost no CO2, use almost only recycled or renewable resources for maintenance, cleaning, furnishing or catering and have almost or no residual waste.

Bouw van een nieuwe toren

Renovation versus new building

Comparing buildings regarding the consumption of resources in kilograms per m2 yields some shocking conclusions. For example, in the first ten years, a new building, however sustainably built, quickly uses two to three times as much resources as an existing building that has been renovated. First of all, this means that renovation and not new construction is the solution for a sustainable city. This also means that circular buildings are not only economical in terms of daily consumption. Due to their design, quality and adaptability, these buildings can be used in the long term, without major renovations or demolition. A second important conclusion is that the resources consumption of a building consists mainly of the consumption of fossil fuels. In 99% of buildings, saving energy and generating it sustainably is the biggest and first step towards a circular building. The energy transition is therefore not an isolated notion, but an important step towards the circular economy in the western world.

Measuring circularity

Practice has shown that measuring circularity is not so complicated. In making the calculation, all resources are, of course, different, as is the case with CO2 emissions, but it quickly becomes clear where the impact lies. Measuring the consumption of resources per year, per m2 or per employee is a necessary condition for the introduction of the circular economy. In buildings, this will lead to more sustainable choices in terms of energy, design, catering and adaptability of the layout. New buildings will also be reconsidered more often. Of course, there are situations in which a new building is preferable to the renovation or transformation of an existing building. Counting the resources in kilograms for the next ten years for all scenarios will provide the answer in this balancing act.

On the basis of data collected in practice, CFP is able to place dozens of reference buildings next to each building with which the consumption of resources can be compared. These results show, among other things, that constructing a new building requires on average five times more resources than renovating an existing building. This will change during the course of the project because new buildings are on average more energy efficient than renovated buildings. As a result, a new building uses an average of two to three times more resources over a longer period of time.

Written by:
Bram Adema, founder and managing director of CFP Green Buildings
Bert van Renselaar, Managing partner of CFP Green Buildings

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