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Encompassing the circular economy

Throwaway culture is on the rise, yet so is the awareness and urgency of climate change. It is a paradoxical situation and one that needs addressing now on both sides.

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) reported that 62% of total waste accumulated in the UK was down to construction, demolition and excavation. And the Circle Economy claims that global construction of housing and infrastructure has the largest resource footprint at 38.8 billion tonnes.

These are shameful statistics for the construction industry, but the good news is that they can be reversed.

The Circular Economy

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines the circular economy to be “based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.”

The 2020 Circulatory Gap Report sites prioritising regenerative resources as one of the seven key elements of the circular economy and a transformational step forward: “Ensure renewable, reusable, non-toxic resources are utilised as materials and energy in an efficient way.”

This means a natural building material such as wood, which can be reused and recycled, is instrumental to the circular economy.

Wood is natural, it comes from trees. It can be turned into a product, reused, and at the end of its life it can be recycled into something else. It is a cycle and it works. But what makes a product truly circular and how can it be proven?

Cradle to Cradle

In 1995, architect William McDonough and chemist Dr Michael Braungart created the Cradle to Cradle Design Framework, which led to the Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Program.

Their reason for developing this philosophy was to advocate for “intentionally designed products which eliminate the concept of waste, use clean energy, value clean water and celebrate diversity.”

It is a human-centric and environmental-centric approach to creating new products more efficiently and more sustainably that ultimately do not compromise the environment.

The Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Program is not only a certification scheme but a benchmark for design. It is not just the product’s ability to be regenerated that makes it attractive, it is the safety of the product too. As part of the certification process all the components making up the product are tested against toxicity standards and any risks it can pose are identified. This extends to the supply chain too.


In a recent interview in Dezeen, Ikea’s head of circular design, Malin Nordin, announced its partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Nordin talked of the importance of embedding the circular message into its supply chain. "What we realised quite quickly is that IKEA being a circular company on its own is quite pointless. We are interdependent of other businesses."

This stance from huge global brands is likely to trickle down and influence the supply chain. Eventually, it could be a requirement for any supplier feeding into a circular economy-led business.

Major housebuilder, Barratt Developments, announced two sustainability targets for its supply chain at its 2020 Supply Chain Conference to help reduce waste and reduce carbon emissions. It also recycles wood waste through social enterprise, Community Wood Recycling, and donated 790 tonnes in 2019. This was used in the community for uses such as DIY projects, biomass heating and woodchip.

It makes good business sense for anybody involved with designing, making or specifying products to look at the changes they need to make to ensure inclusion in these supply chains if they are to be future-proof and enable a circular economy.

Another useful resource to consider is the 'Library of Sustainable Building Materials' from Architecture & Design Scotland which can be viewed here. The library and web resource showcases sustainable and low carbon building materials. You can compare materials and view case studies from Scottish projects.

Wood helps the world go round

In the timber industry, many companies are already recording environmental data to help prove a product’s credentials. The Lifecycle Database is based on generic wood products in the UK including structural products, panel products, solid timber products and windows. The data collected is based on Lifecycle Assessments (LCA) and Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs).

The LCA covers cradle to grave, including forestry, harvesting, transportation, processing and manufacturing, through to the various end of life options. Measuring the manufacturing of products in this way not only provides traceability but provides insight into the performance of the product too.

Wood packaging is a good example of how wood can be repaired and reused multiple times in a product's lifetime before being recycled into wood chips used for further products or renewable fuel, leaving no trace of product behind. 

Timber membership bodies take sustainability seriously and many have policies, tools and certification schemes in place that support the circular economy approach.

Circular design

Materials Journey Worksheet available from Ellen MacArthur Foundation

A key element to making the circular economy work is circular design. The Circular Design Guide offers advice and an abundance of free resources to encourage discussions around the concept. Architects often face difficulties in persuading clients to go with an option that is not the norm. The Circular Design Guide offers advice on how to have this conversation with a client and educate them on why circular design is so important.

Guidance is offered on material choice including ‘materials journey mapping’. Created in partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it encourages those involved to think about the parts and materials, processing, production, sourcing, and other product ‘ingredients.’

Wood CO2ts less

Wood befits the ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ movement. It also helps to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere thus contributing to the slowing down of climate change as wood captures and stores carbon. It is a cost-free solution to carbon capture. Wood can also be used to offset sectors of the economy that cannot become carbon neutral, so it is beneficial to use this natural and renewable material instead of other materials.

Studies have shown wood products can improve emotional state, reduce blood pressure, heart rate and stress and improve sleep patterns. Wood interiors also add warmth and character. Therefore, it is often used in biophilic design, a way of bringing the outdoors in.

To find out more about wood and the circular economy including biobased materials, read this interview we did last year with sustainability expert Pablo van der Lugt.

Find out more about the Wood CO2ts less campaign here.

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