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How can the public sector lead and drive value using the circular economy?


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At Perfect Circle, we think the circular economy (CE) is very much an idea whose time has come.

In May 2017 the world’s first standard for implementing the CE in organisations was published by the British Standards Institute in BS 8001. In June, the London Waste and Recycling Board published London’s Circular Economy Route Map. Circular Peterborough already has a functioning business-to-business sharing platform, a Circular City champion’s scheme and a circular activities case study bank.

We have helped one of our transport infrastructure clients define their approach to the circular economy and develop their implementation plan or ‘Route Map’ and we are now working to develop a library of practical measures that can be deployed on future programmes.

So how can the public sector drive value into its estates? Based on our experience and the whole life value of publicly owned assets, here are five areas to consider for current and future work to yield real tangible results:


Procurement is vital for embedding circular economy principles in design and operation. With the greatest potential for contributing to the circular economy during the optioning, feasibility and early design stages of development; public procurement policies will be significant drivers in achieving the transition to a CE.

Our work with the Major Infrastructure – Resources Optimisation Group (MI-ROG) has led to the production of a brief guide, including sample questions, for helping embed circular economy thinking in procurement and decommissioning of public assets, including requests for information and tendering with suppliers.

Mapping out schemes and materials

Collaboration between public organisations and their value chains is vital to securing a CE for the UK. Mapping project locations offers opportunities to optimise resource use across the whole life cycle of projects and to smooth out the peaks and troughs in demand for construction materials.

The Mayor of London’s office has developed the Infrastructure Mapping Application (IMA) for achieving just this. IMA is a sharing platform that encourages and supports innovation, suggests cross-sector opportunities across the urban realm and encourages collaboration between London’s boroughs and developers. Scaling it up could deliver a UK-wide, smart data approach to major project collaboration.

Create storage and recycling hubs

Shared storage and renewal hubs, and upcycling and re-manufacturing facilities are needed to address the timing and sequencing challenges that frequently come with re-purposing surplus materials within and between infrastructure projects. This capability is absolutely critical for making the CE work in the construction and infrastructure sector, where we know that moving large volumes of low value materials long distances is not economically viable.

We anticipate that public bodies will set up strategically located ‘hubs’ alongside major infrastructure schemes and developments to make this work, drawing on the resource mapping/exchange concept highlighted above. Network Rail, for example, already has 10 materials banks operating across the UK, reducing risks associated.

A UK-wide intelligent system for infrastructure materials storage could create huge cost efficiencies, positive environmental and social impacts as well as new technology and job opportunities.

Robert Spencer - Director, Sustainability, AECOM

Invest in more modular design

Through modular design, it’s possible to create parts that can be more easily lifted out for re-purposing at end of life. McKinsey’s Europe’s Circular-Economy Opportunity Report (2015) advises that industrial and modular processes could lower the cost of constructing buildings by 50% compared with on-site traditional construction methods. PLACE/Ladywell was designed by AECOM and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners as the UK’s first ‘pop-up village’. The site, which was formally a Leisure Centre, is earmarked for later redevelopment as part of the wider Lewisham Town Centre Masterplan. In the meantime PLACE/Ladywell has been constructed to provide temporary homes for 24 families registered homeless and provides ground-floor space for community and enterprise use.

By using modular construction techniques the construction period was reduced, with families moving into a competed building in little after 6 months after the ground being broken. The units are all 10% large than the recommendation within the London Plan and provide high quality temporary two bedroom units. Longer term, the intention is that the structure will be deconstructed, moved and reconstructed elsewhere in the borough to address the Council’s ongoing housing crisis.

Invest in Pathfinder projects

Public bodies that invest in pilot or pathfinder projects will lead the way in developing the innovations and methods needed to move the industry forward. Scaling up pathfinder projects and collating results will show the economic benefits of taking a CE approach across different infrastructure asset classes. Building libraries of tried and tested circular economy methods helps inform the design of future projects and open up refurbishment, up-cycling and re-manufacturing markets that will serve the infrastructure sector.

Perfect Circle is a joint venture formed by Pick Everard, Gleeds and AECOM, set up to realise value and opportunity for public authorities, SCAPE and communities across the UK. Perfect Circle leads the Built Environment Consultancy Services framework.

Written by:

Robert Spencer
Director, Sustainability, AECOM