Infrastructure operators are taking the circular economy seriously – addressing the weaknesses and working through the threats to turn them into opportunities. Why is this happening?
There are several key points – insulation against local scarcity, commodity price fluctuations, logistical pinch points, opportunities for shared materials hubs, phase and aligned program schedulers, collaboration on skilled resources, especially for critical plant and equipment and sustainable options for infrastructure at end-of-life.
What is the evidence that they are doing so? There are a number of instances we can cite.
Working with AECOM, Highways England has developed a circular economy action plan and is demonstrating its value with the A14 Pathfinder project. National Grid, a founding partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, has piloted its approach on a significant asset class: closing the loop on overhead lines – and they are now refreshing their strategy, with new targets and performance metrics.
Then, there are Network Rail’s aggregate hubs – 10 materials banks across the UK; these are long established and their value to that organisation’s national supply chain is significant. And it’s not just power and transport infrastructure, water companies are doing a lot too. For example, Yorkshire Water is deploying its Esholt wastewater treatment works as a circular economy ‘hub’ and is making significant savings on reuse of old filter media and energy self-sufficiency.
The Major Infrastructure – Resource Optimisation Group (or MI-ROG) – which was founded in 2013 by AECOM, Highways England, National Grid, Network Rail and International Synergies – has established a mission to share best practice and collaborate on implementing the circular economy across programs and projects, sharing resource strategies for infrastructure delivery.
Recently, MI-ROG has focused on procurement as a catalyst for integrating circular economy principles into the feasibility, design, maintenance and decommissioning of key infrastructure. This has resulted in the publication of a white paper, which now represents the collective thinking of EDF Energy, the Environment Agency, Heathrow Airport, Highways England, National Grid, Network Rail and Tideway, among others.
I think the white paper is significant because integrating circular economy thinking in procurement can be a significant driver for addressing very real resource constraints and price fluctuations hitting infrastructure operators and investors as they strive to deliver on a significant investment pipeline.
Why do I think this? Simply because the sums of money spent on major infrastructure are so large and the materials requirements so vast that if you start to get it right with serious infrastructure procurement, then there is a significant knock-on effect into the wider market with these major buyers driving the shift through their supply chains.
So the paper sets out likely questions and themes for future prequalifying and tendering with respect to retaining components and materials at their highest value for the longest possible time over the life of infrastructure assets. I think these sample questions give an indication of how the major infrastructure operators will encourage a circular economy model through their major tier one, two and three contractors and suppliers in the coming months and years – well worth reading and integrating into work winning processes and innovation programs.
Indeed, circular economy approaches are good friends of construction modularisation, Building Information Modelling (BIM), comprehensive digital asset inventory and recovery and the transition to service-based infrastructure delivery.
With all these shifts underway in how major infrastructure projects are delivered, a circular economy approach makes for a strong unifying theme in delivering sustainable legacies.
So, what’s next? Well, look out for further thinking from MI-ROG on what aspects of major infrastructure assets are actually recoverable and integrating that knowledge into procurement, design and decommissioning efforts. We will also start looking at what performance metrics work best for tracking implementation of a circular economy strategy and its impact on resource intensity across infrastructure operators.
Robert Spencer is the UK-based chairman at Major Infrastructure – Resources Optimisation Group (MI-ROG) for AECOM.
This article also appears in Issue 6 of CWS magazine.