Canada’s consulting engineers are being urged to embrace the circular economy not only as a climate mitigation strategy but also to forge a more sophisticated and integrated economic and environmental vision.
The value of participating in circular economies is increasingly being recognized by owners, governments and engineers with various new sources of profit being identified, delegates attending a panel presentation at the recent Association of Consulting Engineering Companies — Canada leadership conference in Ottawa were told.
Panel moderator Paul Shorthouse, managing director of Circular Economy Leadership Canada, argued linear economic practices fail to recapture the value of the resources the sector uses, and linear supply chains are more fragile and susceptible to disruption.
“What the circular economy model does is really present a solution,” said Shorthouse. “It’s a framework that includes strategies that are alternatives to the linear take-make-waste economy and allows us to capture the full value of our materials and resources.”
Currently, Canadians are a long way from living in a circular economy, Shorthouse suggested. Research indicates Canada’s economic activity is only about six per cent circular.
That represents tremendous waste, he said, that engineers are being called upon to address through their design of cities and infrastructure.
“The construction-real estate sector is one of the largest consumers of virgin materials and energy,” said Shorthouse. “One of the greatest impacts associated with the construction sector is that ongoing need for virgin resource extraction.
“About half of all the extractive resources globally are used to make construction materials…at the moment, 40 per cent of our urban solid waste is coming from the construction and demolition sector.”
In Canada there are close to four million tons of construction materials sent to landfill every year with about 1.8 million tons of embodied carbon within those materials.
“Engineering professionals play a critical role in helping us redesign our built environments, including across all stages of the building or infrastructure assets lifecycle,” said Shorthouse.
Panellist Jury Gualandris, an associate professor at Western University’s Ivey Business School and academic director at the Centre for Building Sustainable Value, noted there are many examples of businesses that have been able to discover higher order value opportunities for waste.
Research at the Ivey school has focused on “upcycling” food products, with firms profiting by using recovered goods as new raw materials.
The multi-year Ivey study analyzed over 110 “waste exchanges,” in which one firm took the food waste from another firm for an intended beneficial use.
One successful proponent in the construction sector has been Lafarge, which produces Aggneo, a natural secondary aggregate, from recovered materials.
Gualandris said engineers should even be looking outside of their own sector for materials to incorporate into their projects.
The result can be additional revenue streams that are not available to their businesses in a linear model.
“By closing the loop you can have efficiency gains and reduce your costs,” he said.
Gualandris admitted it’s not necessarily easy for a firm to transition to circular practices. It requires organizations to have a more complex set of processes and bring in new learning and testing strategies.
“You need to prove whether certain materials can be used under certain conditions,” he said.
Panellist Jerome Pelletier, president and CEO of BBA, an engineering firm active in national resources projects, said his sector has traditionally been conservative but it’s rapidly transforming.
“What we’ve see in recent years is really a shift…when it comes to sustainability and circular strategies,” he said.
What is required, Pelletier said, is a wholesale reckoning of the firm’s values, culture and skills.
“One thing that we should all do is educate ourselves,” he said. “We’re looking where others have not yet looked.”
BBA realizes that kind of change is enabled by ensuring there is diversity within the organization, with a commitment to “throw people together” with different backgrounds and talents.
To ensure there is a holistic approach, with the full lifecycle considered, Pelletier advocates a zoom-in, zoom-out approach.
“There has to be a structured process during the design stage that individuals and companies zoom in on the specifics but also zoom out,” he explained, to assess how the product is part of larger systems.
Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.