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Endless materials? Tech firm targets circular industry

The waste brokers: Tech firm targets circular industry

Can recycling in construction be taken so far that materials are endlessly reused in a circular economy? The co-founders of a new start-up think so – and the government agrees with them.

On paper, there is nothing wrong with the concept of a circular economy.

It offers an alternative to the traditional economic model of make, use and dispose, whereby all materials (manufactured or natural) are used and reused while being kept at their highest value for as long as possible.

The idea is to stop waste by breaking the link between economic growth and the consumption of new resources – if you’re able to endlessly find new uses for materials that have already been used, you establish a ‘closed loop’ where nothing falls out of the system and nothing goes to waste.

The concept received its biggest state-level endorsement when the EU Commission launched the Circular Economy Package in December 2015. As well as featuring recycling targets (65 per cent of municipal waste to be recycled by 2030 and 75 per cent of packaging waste by 2030), it pushed member states to “promote re-use and stimulate industrial symbiosis – turning one industry’s by-product into another industry’s raw material”.

Though the government’s most recent data on waste generation is for 2014, the numbers still paint a clear picture. The UK generated 202.8m tonnes of waste in 2014, more than half of which (59.4 per cent) was produced by construction, demolition and excavation. Accordingly, integrating the construction industry into a circular economy represents a huge task.

Putting integration with other industries aside for a moment, the figures suggest construction is failing to think and act with a circular mindset.

To take just one example: how much materials waste could be avoided if a project’s BIM data – detailing all the materials used and their specifications – was fed into a public database when the building reaches the end of its life, putting its constituent parts up for re-use and enabling it to be deconstructed, rather than demolished?

Creating a construction loop

A new start-up is taking the first steps towards answering that question.

Launched in 2016 by co-founders Terry Clarke and Lydia Dutton, Loop was established with the aim of helping the industry repurpose its waste. The pair met at the first UKGBC Future Leaders programme in 2014.

“Traditionally UKGBC had run sustainability training, but this one was very much about equipping the CEOs of the future with the skills to lead a sustainable business in every sense of the word,” says UKGBC head of learning and innovation Cat Hirst. 

“We wanted to bring together quite a diverse cohort that represented the whole of the built environment sector. It’s all about challenging business as usual and throughout a nine-month process, delegates get the opportunity to work on their self-development and work in innovation teams.”

Terry Clarke and Lydia Dutton_Loop

Terry Clarke and Lydia Dutton_Loop

Loop co-founders Terry Clarke and Lydia Dutton

Ms Dutton and Mr Clarke did not go into the Future Leaders initiative having already developed the concept for their new venture, Ms Hirst points out. “Loop initially came from [it],” she says. 

Mr Clarke adds: “As we moved through the programme we split into teams with a specific challenge in mind. Ours was construction waste and how we can get more volume out of materials. In the teams, we all worked through those ideas and we were challenged by our peers and those running the programme.”

Having completed the programme, the pair continued to develop the idea in their free time and soon took the bold step of quitting their day jobs and committing to Loop full-time.

However, this quickly seemed like a bad move. “Looking back, it was still an idea or a concept at the time. We thought it was a business, but it wasn’t!” Mr Clarke laughs.

“We’re mapping out their material flows and linking up these materials with better usage”

Terry Clarke

But they would get their first break before long, working on the biggest infrastructure project in Europe while Loop was still at an embryonic stage. “The real breakthrough came when we won an Innovate UK competition,” Mr Clarke recalls. 

“They ran a project with Crossrail and the challenge was to identify ways Crossrail can engage with the circular economy and the sharing economy. We went through a competitive process and pitched against established businesses for that competition and won. That gave us a bit of funding to get things going.”

What’s the Loop proposition?

There are two elements to Loop. The first is a straightforward eBay-style marketplace where companies can list materials and equipment for others to purchase or claim (things can be donated, too).

The second is where the real value of Loop comes into play, Mr Clarke explains. “We’re mapping out their material flows and linking up these materials with better usage,” he says.

“That might be linking them up with community projects and charities, SMEs, passing on items that are useful to other businesses, or even allocating them within their own business for other projects. The platform we’ve developed gives us visibility for all of these items. There’s a central point [the marketplace] where people can log in and see what is available and buy it, sell it, or claim it.

“It’s more than just a platform that we hand over and step away from, because the industry doesn’t engage with that. It needs that time to be spent to map out where the best routes are for these materials and the equipment. You need to do that by linking it all up, and some thought goes into that.”

“Perhaps when new buildings are built we’ll have the BIM model and we can place those items on Loop and ready to go when the building is due a refurbishment”

Terry Clarke

It’s this element of the proposition that secured them the opportunity to work first with Crossrail and, more recently, Costain. The pair also entered Loop into a programme in Helsinki, earning the opportunity to work on a pilot project to optimise waste materials and equipment with Finnish pulp and paper manufacturer, Stora Enso.

While working on all these projects, the aim has remained the same: finding bigger and better ways of integrating the circular economy model into construction.

Integrating BIM with Loop

Loop’s ability to link businesses and charities with old materials is still limited at this early stage. Users can browse the marketplace themselves and when something new comes onto the platform, the Loop team will get in touch with potential buyers and let them know. As the number of users grows, so too will the possibility that materials can be repurposed.

Crossrail liverpool street station platforms under construction

Crossrail Liverpool Street station platforms under construction

Loop worked with Crossrail on circular economy integration 

I ask Mr Clarke how this side of the offering can be developed to make it more seamless. His face lights up at the chance to take me through his vision for Loop. “There’s some really interesting work we can do with BIM to predict materials that are going to be coming out [of a building] and instantly link them up on an exchange,” he says.

“It would be really useful, if there’s a planned refurbishment or a remodel, to get the BIM model without having to go to a site and see for yourself, being able to have a register of all the materials that are going to come out, so we can instantly place them.

“Perhaps when new buildings are built we’ll have the BIM model and we can place those items on Loop and ready to go when the building is due a refurbishment, or where you have items like lighting for example, which might get replaced on a shorter cycle, having that information there so we can instantly link it up with a new user.”

If construction can achieve these levels of circular integration, it will go some way to reducing the industry’s massive contribution to UK waste.

Challenging business as usual

For now, the Loop team is concentrating on building a critical mass of major users in construction, development and demolition, aimed at creating a pipeline of materials that downstream users can repurpose. This is progressing slowly, but in order to have an industry-wide impact, they need a change in mindset from stakeholders and a seat on the project team table.

Justifying the hire of circular economy consultants will be a hard sell for many, given the tight margins on which construction firms operate. But if contractors fail to embrace meaningful innovation, they will continue to be left behind by other industries.

The automotive sector, as one example, is now trailing autonomous vehicles. Is construction brave enough – or sufficiently collaborative – to ask itself if self-erecting scaffolding for large projects is possible, for instance?

“If we can provide information that says these materials will be worth x-amount if you put them onto Loop and reuse them rather than doing business as usual, I think that’ll be really compelling”

Terry Clarke

“In this industry, there isn’t enough time and rigour given to an innovation process to come up with really novel new ideas,” UKGBC’s Ms Hirst says. “Often that leads to incremental change because people are kept in the day-to-day too much and are asked to improve things and make things more efficient.”

Mr Clarke concedes that “innovation is risky”, but he believes that if the Loop team can offer something more substantial than a concept that delivers real value, they can de-risk innovation and encourage wider take-up.

“One item that’s really key is being able to prove the value,” he says. “If we can provide information that says these materials will be worth x-amount if you put them onto Loop and re-use them rather than doing business as usual, I think that’ll be really compelling.”

But again, this part of the offering is yet to be developed. For rapid take-up to happen now, the industry has to accept and embrace the idea that this is the direction of travel every industry will be expected to take, not just construction.

There is proof of this in the UK government’s commitment to the principles of the EU’s Circular Economy Package, as well as attempts to integrate major projects such as Crossrail with the circular economy model. What is more, the government’s sector deal presents an opportunity to standardise from component level, creating more opportunities to re-use and repurpose materials.

As our interview draws to a close, Mr Clarke pulls out his phone and shows me the latest project the Loop co-founders are working on: a mobile app called GearBuddy that allows users to find and rent tools and equipment in a similar way to Uber.

What the success of GearBuddy would mean for the traditional players in plant hire is anyone’s guess, but with the recent release of similar apps such as Grafter (which allows users to quickly find skilled and unskilled tradesman, also in an Uber-style platform), it suggests the tectonic plates that have held the industry in place for so long are shifting.

The Loop co-founders’ next targets offer a further indication that the industry is approaching a tipping point. “Linking up with the design community would be really interesting,” Mr Clarke says.

“When an architect is designing a project, for them to be able to search a Loop database for materials that would fit their needs, I think that’s really smart and getting in at a level above so you’re building re-use into the design process.” 

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