Circularity is the word of the hour. But how can businesses achieve it?

The UK is now halfway to hitting its net-zero target but with a long way still to go, it’s more important than ever for businesses to fulfil their sustainability commitments. The new, world-first center for circular economy research in the UK represents the wider push for sustainable resource management, but how can businesses accelerate their adoption of circularity and what can be learnt from offsite manufacturing practices?

Interest in circularity is gathering pace in line with government targets and growing public concern over the environmental impact of domestic and industrial activities. As part of its Circular Economy Package, the government has set a target to recycle 65 percent of municipal waste and limit waste sent to landfill to ten percent, by 2035. In Europe, the pace of regulatory change is moving even faster; by 2025, EU member states must prepare to reuse and recycle 55 percent of all municipal waste, based on weight, in accordance with the Waste Framework Directive.

Advances in technology are accelerating the path to circularity for many commercial and industrial businesses. Artificial intelligence (AI) systems are improving recycling and waste management processes and even assessing the recyclability of a product’s components over its lifecycle. However, research shows that only 7.2 percent of the 100 billion tonnes of virgin materials used each year, make it back into the economy. If circular models are to be embedded, businesses must rethink their operational strategy.

Improving data collection across the value chain is an important first step. Digital tools, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), allow businesses to harvest accurate baseline performance data to identify operational strengths and weaknesses. Tracking material and product data throughout their lifecycle should feed into this; knowing where and how products are made and processed after use can help to reduce risks, waste, and costs. Leveraging this insight at the point of specification and design will ensure whole life costing is better informed and allow businesses to consider how a product’s end of use requirements can become more sustainable. For instance, is there scope to reconfigure, reuse or recycle the product effectively?

In the building sector, this approach is readily adopted in offsite manufacturing. Here, business operations focus on driving high-level productivity whilst minimizing waste and emissions. Building components are cut to size through precision manufacturing to limit offcuts or inaccuracies that would require more energy to fix or replace parts. To achieve circularity, new rental modular building solutions are typically produced from existing stock that is reused and reconfigured to meet the new demand. For example, modules once used to create a medical discharge facility could be repurposed as classrooms or offices. Operating in this way allows circularity to be invested across the supply chain with organizations able to lease sustainable buildings on a short- or long-term basis.A graphic of a wind turbine with a blue background with clouds and trees.

Moving to a circular business model will also require products to be redesigned for greater longevity, and necessitate an assessment of materials or products that can be refurbished or remanufactured successfully. This goes hand in hand with supplier engagement. Businesses should consider building circular supply chains, which invest in low-emission, reusable materials, assets, and practices across an interconnected network of suppliers, consumers and partners. In offsite manufacturing, this is achieved by investing in materials such as plasterboard, which is comprised of recycled and recyclable matter, and collaborating with partners that recycle by-products. For example, a provider of structural insulated panels that sells scrap to accredited scrap merchants for reuse or compresses steel waste to be recycled at waste energy conversion plants.

However, shifting to a circular business model does present some challenges. Failing to consider the full range of business activities and the lifecycle of products when in use risks undermining circularity. In support of this, businesses must encourage internal and client teams to take accountability for whole life cost and not just initial costs. The entire business should be focused on maximizing value in the long term, whether that’s energy consumption and generation or the management of all manufacturing and service outputs.

A strong ESG team is essential; this will provide well-rounded views on company practices and client requirements and ensure these align with a circular supply chain and business model. Investing in research and development is also critical for bringing new and improved practices or products to life.

At a time of high costs and increasing resource scarcities, businesses must adjust their operations to remain resilient in the long term. Building circularity into the supply chain and business model will ensure a more sustainable future comes to fruition.

For a list of the sources used in this article, please contact the editor.

David Harris

David Harris is the CEO at offsite manufacturer, Premier Modular. Established in 1956, Premier Modular Limited is one of the UK’s leading offsite manufacturing and modular building specialists. Committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2035, Premier Modular minimizes its impact on the environment by using sustainably procured materials, sending zero waste to landfill and incorporating renewable energy technologies into its buildings where possible. The modular specialist forms part of Premier Modular Group alongside sister companies Net Zero Buildings and Net Zero Panels.