19 Dec 2019

From sustainability to circularity

For the inhabitants of an imaginary and solitary island, the scarcity of natural resources would be taken for granted: only limited quantities of mineral and biological resources are available to satisfy their needs and desires. Only raw materials that are already on the island or can grow relatively quickly can be used. The energy of the sun, which feeds the growth of biological materials (e.g. wood) and food, is the only substance that penetrates this isolated system. In this sense, human (physical) work is also a renewable source, indirectly powered by the sun.

The inhabitants of this island use and transform resources to build housing and infrastructure and to acquire other amenities.

They are aware that in order to survive, they must act rationally with their resources, since the boundaries of the system are obvious. Exceeding the capacity of the local ecosystem and overexploiting natural resources could make it impossible to survive. Of course, such an island is not entirely fictional.

Energy from fossil fuels is one of the factors that critically influenced the abundance and dispersal of the population across the Earth’s surface, a kind of (partially porous) boundary of our system. Because of its significant environmental impact, humanity can be considered as one of the geological forces, so the anthropocene is probably an appropriate term for the current geological period. The only resource that enters our planet from the outside is the energy of the sun. In this sense, solar energy is also the only natural source available in the long term to support the existence and satisfaction of the needs of most life forms. Given that we are facing a shortage of many raw materials on our space island, in the future we will only be able to use those that can grow.

What about materials already in use? Currently, less than 12% of substances are circulating in the European Union, mostly through recycling. Since 2004, the share has increased by only 3.4%, mainly due to the reduced use of the substance or raw material, since the amount of recycling has only slightly increased. The circulation of substances is substantially lower than recycling (by about 55 percent), because unlike recycling, it takes into account all substances in use, not just those delineated as waste.

Sustainability in the true sense of the word requires the circulation of any given substance without the loss of quality and with consideration of the built-in energy, that is, the energy that is needed in the production and the various methods of processing the raw materials from which a product is made. By 2050, almost all of the building stock has to be renovated in accordance with European Union directives, which means that more than three percent of the floor area of ​​existing buildings needs to be renovated annually. The issue of embedded substances and energy is therefore becoming increasingly important, both due to scarcity of resources and carbon emissions. The purpose of renovations is to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions when the building is in use, but we also need materials and energy to build and install building insulation and building systems to provide comfort and use locally available renewable resources. The intensive renovation of an existing building stock is a necessary step in the right direction, as buildings use half of all energy, raw materials and carbon emissions. Nevertheless, the renewal process is accompanied by the risk that we will spend our entire carbon budget – if, of course, we want to limit anthropogenic climate heating to 2 ° C compared to the pre-industrial era. Currently, humanity has about 1170 Gt of carbon dioxide equivalent available, emitting about 1332 tonnes every second.

In line with the challenges outlined above, we have recently begun work on a new project, funded within the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme.

The purpose of DRIVE 0 project is to decarbonise buildings in the EU and to accelerate comprehensive renovations by promoting people-centred renovation processes. The deep retrofit process will be more attractive, environmentally friendly and cost-effective for building users and investors. Partners will identify key local actors and drivers interested in circular retrofit, and will use anthropological approaches to encourage building occupants to make decisions about deep retrofits. Thus, renovation will be people-oriented and environmentally responsible in terms of (local) raw materials, notably through approaches of e.g. urban mining and raw material banks.

One of the six demonstration cases where the restoration circle will be put into practice will also take place in Slovenia – besides IRI UL, Drive 0’s project partner is the largest Slovenian manufacturer of insulation materials Knauf Insulation from Škofja Loka.

In both the EU and the world, we are facing a serious challenge of scarcity of raw materials, which must be taken into account both in the introduction of new technologies (e.g. renewable energy, electromobility) and in the renovation of buildings. The solution is to consume less and use existing materials and products, such as cars or buildings, for as long as possible. We can also make a significant contribution to reducing consumption through lifestyle change as individuals. Innovative solutions in the field of materials circularity in the construction industry and in other areas are a significantly greater challenge that requires intensive collaboration between different disciplines and sectors. IRI UL contributes to the development of such solutions together with partner organizations through research and innovation projects, in which there is a close cooperation between higher education, research organisations and industry, and between social sciences and engineering.