Interest in the circular economy is booming across the world.
According to WRAP – a UK-based climate action ENGO – more than 133 countries have committed to circular economy principles, with 79 fully committed to adopting the circular economy as part of their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
NDCs are non-binding national plans adopted by countries to combat climate change, specifically to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
To date, Australia is leading the charge to a fully circular economy, committing to a total circularity by 2030.
The Netherlands, long the front runner in the push towards a fully circular economy, has a 2050 target with the EU also adopting a 2050 target for full circularity.
However, according to Peter Hopkinson, professor of circular economy at the University of Exeter, the majority of government policy is still targeted on recycling, at the expense of excluding out waste production in the first place.
Writing for the Guardian last week, Hopkinson, who is co-director of the Exeter Centre for the Circular Economy and UK National Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Research CE-Hub, suggested that the next step will be to drive up the resource productivity of materials and products entering the economy and incentivise product-life extension, remanufacturing and re-use.
Hopkinson argued that many businesses, including those in the forest products supply chain, operate to linear economic models, with excess waste in the production of materials.
The Circular Economy is more than just recycling
The UK-based Wood for Good campaign, which last month closed after 20 years of campaigning, has an extensive resource list outlining how timber is at the core of the circular economy.
At its crux, the circular economy can reduce total carbon emissions by up to 70% through the three Rs – reducing, reusing, and recycling.
And when it comes to recycling the forest products industry has a strong story to share.
Reported in Wood Central on Global Recycling Day last month, new evidence suggests that paper and packaging can be recycled up to 25 times.
When it comes to mass timber construction – which includes CLT, LVL, GLT and MPP – emerging evidence suggests that mass timber has a much higher recycling and reusable upcycle than ‘green steel’ and recycled concrete.
And then there is reclaimed or recovered timber, which can be recycled to meet the growing needs of construction.
Perhaps the greatest opportunity for the improvement is in the forest where new technologies can be used to upcycle low value products and produce higher value products such as reconstituted bamboo or laminated veneer lumber products.
By embracing concepts like cradle to cradle, raw materials can be reused indefinitely, serving as food for new products.
This can be monitored through a process known as Life Cycle Analysis (or LCA), with Environmental Product Declarations (or EPDs) developed, and through certification schemes such as Global Green Tag’s Nature Positive, where products can now demonstrate full commitment to the circular economy.
While this looks good in theory, the reality is that the industry is still too heavily focused on recycling at the expense of reusing and reducing.
Speaking last month at Wood You Like To Know, Nicolle Sullivan, head of Impact for think-step anz, challenged the industry to do more than just recycle.
think-step anz has authored the majority of the Australasian LCA and EPDs, and prior to joining the organisation Nicolle was head of strategy for the Green Building Council’s Responsible Products Framework.
“Ultimately we need to look at reusing materials, And dare I say it, reduce consumption in the first place.”Nicolle Sullivan, head of Impact for think-step anz
One of the major challenges for the forest products industry is to build-in reuse and reduced consumption into their circularity models.
Are we reusing the right materials?
Next to recycling, reuse is an important consideration.
Design for Disassembly has been around for decades, but it has gained increased traction in recent years to meet growing concerns around high consumption of resources and low recycling rates in the construction industry.
As it stands the building and construction industry accounts for almost 40% of global carbon emissions, with 13% of emissions in the construction of greenfield and brownfield buildings.
Fortunately, timber is ideally suited for reuse.
According to the Royal Institute of Building Architects, the peak UK body for architects, timber has high versatility, is relatively lightweight and has low embodied carbon.
Mass timber in particular is highly fit-for-purpose, with carbon sequestration occurring long after the materials have been removed from the building.
When it comes to paper and packaging, the case for reuse is much more complex.
According to article, the success of reusability depends on the number of rotations and the distance to reuse packaging centres.
McKinsey argues that the reuse of materials must achieve at least 20 rotations to offset the fossil fuels from the production of reconstituted packaging.
Nonetheless, it argues that the level of recycling for paper (up to 90% in Australia and New Zealand) is far higher than plastics (less than 15%) reaffirming that paper packaging is by far the more sustainable option.
Do we need to reduce consumption?
The short answer is ‘yes’. But the longer answer is more complicated.
Addressing the International Mass Timber Conference in Portland last month, Canadian architect Michael Green forewarned against the over consumption of timber-based products.
Talking to Dezeen last month, Green spoke of the value of bamboo and grass-based products in areas of the world where sustainable timber is not accessible.
Bamboo in particular, has great potential.
The key is not to reduce total consumption of low carbon materials but reduce over consumption of unsustainable materials (including plastics, steel and concrete).
In March 2022 the World Economic Forum published a report outlining steps taken to address the ‘Circularity Gap.’
With more than 100 million tonnes of materials consumed, it identified that nature-based solutions (including low embodied carbon forest products) and renewable technologies must be prioritised over and above carbon intensive alternatives.
In Australia, the decision by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to prioritise mass timber in future construction projects is part of a greater push to reduce consumption of unsustainable building materials and address the ‘circularity gap.
Last month it passed its National Reconstruction Fund, a $15 billion manufacturing package which will help businesses in transitioning to a circular economy. As part of the package more than $500m has been allocated to forestry and fibre, identifying the forest products industry as a crucial partner in meeting its NDC’s.
According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Climate Portal, reforestation is the world’s first line of defence against climate change, supercharging the world’s push towards greater circularity.
By planting more trees and improving supply of products carrying third party certification, the forest products industry can play an important role in meeting the requirements of a fully circular economy.
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