Construction: the virtuous circle of the circular economy

Eco-innovation? A concept that looks at the life cycle of a product, from design to production, use and end-of-life. Raw materials, manufacturing, waste and recycling are also taken into account. The bottom line is that it must be both efficient and sustainable to promote the circular economy.
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Think ahead, during and after. These three words provide a perfect summation of eco-innovation, the concept that focuses on the full life cycle of products and processes. It’s a concept that is becoming more of a priority in the construction sector as people come to realize that we really do have only one planet, and its resources are finite!

Did you know ?

The construction industry generates 40% of the world’s solid waste*.

Paris 2024. Let's imagine ourselves there. The Olympic flame has set the French capital alight and kicked off the XXXIII Olympic Summer Games! Behind the sporting achievement of the 15,000 athletes competing lies another equally daring feat of human achievement: the Olympic Village. A shining model of sustainable development, this construction will cover nearly 51 hectares alongside the Seine, near Paris. So what makes it so special? It’s the end result of an extremely innovative design concept that embraces the principles of the circular economy. In other words, its design takes account of the natural resources consumed in its construction and the waste generated over its entire life cycle, from the choice of raw materials to the end of its life, and the potential for its re-use or recycling. Although not a Saint-Gobain project, it is nevertheless a perfect illustration of the circular economy design principle.

Making maximum use of materials with a high recycled or renewable content, such as wood, the buildings of the French Olympic Village will boast a low carbon content and run solely on energy from renewable sources. At the end of the Olympics, it will be neither abandoned nor destroyed, but converted into family homes, apartments, hotels and offices to create a new eco-city. Nothing is lost, and everything is reused!

Transitioning to a more resilient model

“Global warming, the increasing scarcity of resources and the accumulation of waste have all raised awareness to the fact that we must now change the way we design, produce and distribute products and services”, explains Diane Maffre, Sustainable Products and Solutions Manager at Saint-Gobain. “We must make the transition to a more resilient model that uses less energy and fewer resources, and that mirrors the way society is changing”. So a final goodbye to the ‘make, use, throw away’ mentality of the past. Now is the era of the 4Rs: reduce, repurpose, reuse and recycle! 

So what’s the goal of this new concept? It’s to produce without waste and delivering on a firm commitment to limit the use of raw materials and reduce CO2emissions. So good news for our planet then!

“Embracing the challenges of the circular economy in terms of innovation is one response to the major environmental and climate challenges we face today”, says Diane Maffre. “This more responsible approach aims to reduce our dependence on energy and raw materials, at the same time as persuading us to consume more sustainably”.

Economies of scale and new business opportunities

Ultimately, everyone wins: the company that creates value by producing more virtuous products, and their customers who learn to consume those products in different ways.

“Being part of this movement also allows companies to achieve economies of scale, particularly in terms of transportation, manufacturing and maintenance costs”, continues Diane Maffre. It also opens the way to new business opportunities, with the creation of recycling centers and low-carbon businesses. The end result of that process is new jobs, contracts and many beneficial synergies, because sustainable innovation involves a large number of contributors, all committed to conserving resources and protecting the environment.

But where do you start with implementing such a concept?

Think local and sustainable

Ensuring a good outcome to this process begins with the choice of raw materials. Wherever possible, these should be sourced from renewable or recycled resources and be easily repurposed or reused. Our new ISOVER glass wool made from recycled glass with a bio-sourced binder is an excellent example.

Thinking sustainable innovation also means minimizing your carbon footprint, which involves local sourcing and sustainable transportation in combination with smart techniques - such as the compression of glass wool rolls - to limit their environmental impact in transit.

The manufacturing and distribution processes are equally crucial, and must make maximum use of recycling and waste management. Innovations in the construction sector include the new Lean by Placo® pre-cutting service, which offers accurately pre-cut plasterboard to the trade, drastically reducing on-site waste.

“Added to which, the Saint-Gobain Group is absolutely committed to reducing the amount of production plant waste not recovered for recycling by 50% between now and 2025”, explains Diane Maffre.

Lightweight construction is also delivering a noticeable breakthrough.  Saint-Gobain is an active contributor to driving this fast-growing trend based on the principle of lightweight, modular buildings that are easily dismantled, recyclable and less resource-intensive. Increasingly popular with local authorities, these ‘lite’ buildings also meet the challenges of urban densification and the transition to a low-carbon economy.

The demise of planned obsolescence 

The final building block required to develop more sustainable products is their end-of-life phase! Planned obsolescence is now itself obsolete; the imperative today is to extend the lifespan of products and systems through repurposing and re-use. Recycling, on the other hand, requires the development of new collection networks and the creation of dedicated channels like those offered by ISOVER Recycling and Placo® for insulation and plasterboard recovery and recycling. So an entirely new economy built around new services is now emerging. The ultimate goal is to work in a closed circuit that reinjects materials recovered from demolition into the production line to create new products. Let’s make sure that today's buildings are tomorrow’s material banks... Why ever not?

Far from ‘going round in circles’, the circular economy is now part and parcel of our lifestyles, because it responds effectively to today’s environmental and social challenges. A source of creativity, it inspires new practices, especially in terms of upcycling to convert waste into high value-added products. A famous coffee brand has recently begun repurchasing its used pods to build bikes! Aluminum is infinitely recyclable and can be used to create all sorts of objects! Making new from old is also perfectly possible using glass, plastics and steel, because all of these are upcyclable, holding out an open invitation to R&D teams to let their imaginations run wild! 

*source: ADEME - The French Environment and Energy Management Agency

Photo credits: © BsWei/Shutterstock, Paolo Rosselli/Studio Boeri, Antonio Leao de Sousa