We can’t keep building and building and expect materials to last forever. Resources are already running out. In Vietnam right now, sand shortages mean that construction projects are stalled and prices are rocketing, a problem that has been felt in Asia and Africa for some time.
Circular thinking says that the answer is not to demolish and throw away everything at the end of a building or asset’s life. Instead, our built environment should be considered as a valuable source of materials, with its components identified and logged so that we can use them again…and again…and again.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which has been guiding thought in this area since it was founded in 2009, there are three principles for a circular economy: eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials at their highest value and regenerate nature. A circular economy must be founded on renewable energy and materials too, says the Foundation, it must decouple economies from the consumption of finite resources and should be a resilient system which is good for business, people and the environment.
National Highways set out its own circular economy strategy back in 2016. It also did work at the design stage on some pathfinder projects, including the A303 Stonehenge scheme, looking into what circular economy thinking could mean in practical terms. The findings of that have helped shape procurement clauses and fed into its current roadmap to net zero.
The European Union is pushing hard for a circular economy which it thinks is central to hitting carbon reduction targets. Research by the Conference of European Directors of Roads (CEDR), funded by the UK, Denmark, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland is looking to set up a framework that will help road owners improve resource efficiency and the circular economy. The CERCOM (Circular Economy in Road Construction and Maintenance) project sets out the following definition of circularity for highways:
- Minimising the consumption of natural resources
- Designing out waste and keeping resources in use and at their highest level of utility
- Optimising the value obtained within each lifecycle
- Improving environmental performance and contributing to societal development
Of course, many in the highways sector would argue that we already practice circularity to some extent, by using some proportion of recycled asphalt planings (RAP) in many asphalt mixes. The proportion of RAP used varies hugely from country to country with necessity being the mother of invention: the Netherlands, which doesn’t produce its own aggregates, is leading the way.
At Thermal Road Repairs, we like to think that we are making our own, small contribution to circularity. First our system re-uses failed and failing material and effectively renews it to the same standard as when it was laid. No material is cut out and carted away and we minimise the amount of new material needed. We also make use of solar energy to help power our thermal heaters.
Second, our approach prolongs the life of the whole road, increasing the value of that lifecycle. Because our repairs are seamless, with old and new material heated up so that they can be mixed together and then compacted, our repairs are permanent.
We are also investigating better ways to record and track the materials that go into roads through our partnership with Asphalt IQ. You can read more about that here, but briefly, Asphalt IQ is a system where smart tags are embedded in the road and can hold information about the materials’ specifications, test results or embodied carbon.
Circular thinking does require a change of mindset – not least in the way we think of budgets and funding. But it is also vital if we are to make the most of our resources, cut carbon emissions, and preserve our natural environment.
Thermal Road Repairs is a green technology company which supplies systems to improve the quality, cost and time efficiency of road repairs and paving – at a far lower environmental cost than traditional methods. It invests significantly in R&D, to create new technologies and to continuously improve existing ones.
Thermal Road Repairs: Decarbonising the asphalt repair industry.
High output. Low emission. Zero waste. Permanent solution.