Achieving Net Zero Case Study: building more circular infrastructure

The circular economy is gradually gaining traction as an approach towards climate mitigation – but what does it really mean for the built environment sector? FoL’s Knowledge & Events Intern Kana Nomoto explores how Amsterdam is building more circular infrastructure, like cycle paths made from recycled materials.

Circular Amsterdam

Amsterdam has committed to becoming a fully circular city by 2050. This is why Amsterdam-based consultancy Copper8 are knee-deep in both accelerating research into the circular economy practices and embedding more circular practices amongst their clients.

One of their recent projects was a collaboration with the Port of Amsterdam (PoA) on the design and construction of cycle paths made of recycled, bio-based and/or recyclable materials.

The aim was to deliver a project that would be long-term, an initiative that would allow the PoA to continue to transform their infrastructure to become more circular. Copper8 Founder Cécile van Oppen describes this approach as an “opportunity [for the Port] to learn and progress from this project”.

Map of the Port of Amsterdam
Location of the Port of Amsterdam (PoA)

Procurement: embedding circularity into the process

A circular economy approach involves selecting the right materials, developing and delivering them in a low-carbon manner and, finally, incorporating them in a way that will last a long time – all with an awareness that you’re making something that may need to be adapted in the future.

To achieve this, there were several key areas that Copper8 and the PoA focused on during the procurement stage to make sure that the circular economy objectives would be met when the project was realised. The most critical criteria was the degree of circularity offered. This was assessed in both quantitative and qualitative terms.

The quantitative measurement of circularity was based upon the MKI* score (a Dutch method used to calculate the costs associated with environmental impact). Taking into account the life cycle analysis, each different layer of the cycle lane infrastructure was analysed (e.g. the bottom layer has a 50-year cycle whilst the top layer is 20 years). This meant that the client was clear on the maintenance costs and cost to the environment at the end of the life cycle.

Bike path and road
The PoA cycle path. Source: Copper 8.

The qualitative measures of circularity included elements such as:

  • material choice: are the materials bio-based, recycled and recyclable – and is it possible to re-use the material once it has met the end of its life cycle?
  • and circular design: is the infrastructure long-lasting and flexible enough that it doesn’t need to be fully replaced each time maintenance is required?

Other considerations included the impact on biodiversity, innovation and risk management.

Overall, this approach to procurement encouraged suppliers to engage in intensive R&D, consider a broad range of alternatives to traditional materials and dissect the cycle lane infrastructure accordingly.

Materials matter

“We’re not going to reach our climate targets if we only focus on the same topics we’ve been looking at for the past 40 years – energy reduction, buildings and mobility”, van Oppen says. Materials matter too: a recent publication by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that 45% of our carbon impact is related to the materials that we’re using.

So the materials for each layer of the bike path were carefully scrutinised, and suppliers were asked to offer low-carbon, circular alternatives. Importantly, recycled plastics were not used due to concerns that wear and tear would result in microplastics harming the local environment.

Collaboration and knowledge transfer: sustaining circularity in future projects

Beyond the materials, there’s also a key lesson to be learnt about the operational value of taking a circular economy position.

Copper8 facilitated an intensive tendering procedure for this project in order to be very clear about what outcomes were expected. This involved a ‘competitive dialogue’ approach, a form of tendering which engages in dialogue with multiple market parties. This made sure that both the client and the supplier were aligned in their objectives and in their respective understandings of what ‘circularity’ meant to them.

This reflected Copper8’s collaborative consultancy-style. They believe in working closely with their clients to equip them with the skills and knowledge to sustain circularity in future projects and operations.

Cycle path
The PoA cycle path. Source: Copper 8.

“We feel it’s very important that we don’t work for our clients, but we work with our clients”, van Oppen explains. As a result of the conversations that took place through the competitive dialogue, collaboration became central to the process and led to a truly practical, yet innovative, scheme.

Fiscal policy: how can we encourage more circularity?

Circular resource use and practices are not only ideologically better but, with the right incentivisation structure in place, the circular economy is also financially more sustainable.

Copper8 are now exploring how a change in fiscal policies could increase the uptake of circularity. Currently, the high labour tax in the Netherlands limits circular construction as it requires more intensive innovation and strategy-based labour – which is perceived to be more expensive than manufacturing new material in the standard manner.

The project hopes to prove to the government that a shift in taxation policy is needed to meet circular goals, and that being circular is not only the logical choice but also the cheaper choice.

Circular London

Meanwhile, in London, the circular economy has been acknowledged in the Intend to Publish London Plan. Policy SI 7 outlines how the city can improve resource efficiency and achieve waste minimisation/prevention. And it includes the requirements for a Circular Economy Statement, which developers are encouraged to produce for their development plans and for proposals.

The London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB), who facilitate the Circular London programme, believe that a circular approach will support a green and low carbon recovery from the pandemic. This will require circular economy-led policies and business models, as well as behaviour change, to tackle consumption-based emissions which account for 110 million tonnes of CO2 emissions in London. How the public and private sector might drive behaviour change to encourage people to consume less and boost the circular economy was one of the topics explored in FoL’s Achieving Net Zero Digital Conference webinar Climate Change Needs Behaviour Change.

Our Achieving Net Zero case studies showcase inspiring examples of best practice, from low-cost interventions to large-scale infrastructure. We want to raise the profile of schemes and organisations doing a great job of working towards the Net Zero ambition, highlighting what we can learn from them.

If you’d like to get involved with our Achieving Net Zero programme, get in touch with Anna Odedun, Head of Knowledge.