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Dutch companies, the government, knowledge institutions and social organizations have decided to work together to achieve a fully circular economy – a society without waste – by 2050.

This will present many challenges. All driving and heating will have to be electric. Every year, 200,000 residential units will have to be modified, with all buildings being recyclable and made from reusable materials.

Innovation will play a key role in achieving this goal. Recently, experts at SGS INTRON held a round table discussion on innovations in circular construction. Director Ron Leppers explains, “Our specialist materials knowledge means we are involved with all kinds of projects related to circular construction and innovation: research, product development, advice and certification.”

People gathered for a meeting

Design and Reuse

Ron strongly supports the design of buildings that can be easily adapted for future functions, “structures that we will be able to dismantle like Lego in about thirty year’s time, to reuse the separate materials in construction without much loss.” He notes, however, that in the next 30 years, many existing buildings will be rebuilt or demolished, and we will have to find ways to deal with the mineral building materials, metals, insulation materials and plastics that will be released as a result.

Former director-owner Gert van der Wegen says, “Making new high-quality building materials out of residual and waste materials is really what circularity is all about for me.” Gert is focusing on the search for useful, higher quality or wider applications for residual or waste materials.

Measuring Circularity

Measuring the impact of circularity is essential, says Senior Consultant Ulbert Hofstra. “When reusing building components, the extra environmental impact of transport will soon start to make an impact, which becomes visible in the total life cycle analysis (LCA).” Ulbert points out that traditional LCA does not take into account the idea that a product could experience several life cycles in its lifespan. He suggests performing LCAs over multiple life cycles.

Stone wall being demolished

The Need for Broader Thinking

Achieving circularity will require broader thinking – looking outside our own cycle and sector, for example, at waste streams from other sectors, and finding the best possible ways to use these as secondary raw materials.

Consultant Huub Creuwels is working on this. “With the help of research, I look at the environmental aspects of materials that enter a second life as circular building materials.” These can include plastics as well as mineral residues. For example, plastics from the automobile demolition industry can be turned into cladding for waterways and possibly into fuel. Huub asks, “How do you do this in a good way, and what about other aspects, such as microplastics and sustainability, when you start to use recycled plastics again and again?”

Circularity in Practice

Gert van der Wegen notes that there are already many examples of SGS dealing with the past in a circular way. Currently, Gert is involved in the development of a plasma reactor that allows for the complete reuse of all materials at (household) landfill sites.

Consultant Natalie Carr says, “I see it as a challenge to put the circular economy into practice. To actually make new materials and products from waste streams from different industries.” Carr is investigating methods for treating waste glass, which cannot always be used to make new glass, so it can be used as a substitute for cement in concrete. She is also looking at new ways to reuse fibers from textiles.