Aoife O’Donnell and Ellie Walshe explain how digital product passports could help to enable a circular economy in the construction industry
To reach net zero by 2050, society needs to move away from its current linear ‘take-make-waste’ economic model and towards a more circular economy. The construction industry – including material extraction, manufacturing of construction products, and the construction and renovation of buildings – is currently responsible for approximately 5%–12% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, one of the most established thought leaders on the circular economy, believes that through implementing circular economy principles, emissions from construction materials can be reduced by 38% by 2050.
Government policy will be key in enabling the transition to a circular economy for all sectors, especially construction. The implementation of the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan and the Circular Economy Package in the UK are the first steps in decoupling growth from resource consumption.
While circular economy principles and theories are well-established, there are challenges to implementation, including a lack of transparency, standardisation and data sharing. EU policy targeting digitalisation – and, in particular, the use of digital product passports – will be key in overcoming these limitations.
Digital product passports, or material passports, serve as an inventory of all materials, components and raw materials used in a product or building, along with information on their location. They give materials a documented identity and value to enable them to remain visible in the economy.
The implementation of digital product passports is driven by regulation, with a number of European countries adopting the concept in 2022. It has been outlined as an action in the EU’s revised Construction Products Regulation, which is open for stakeholder feedback until 1 July 2022.
An early leader on the concept of digital product passports in Europe was the Buildings as Material Banks (BAMB) project, consisting of 15 partners from seven different European countries. BAMB has published a number of research papers and best practice guidelines for implementing digital product passports.
The construction industry is responsible for approximately 5%–12% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
In Ireland, the concept is being put to the test with the launch of the Irish Green Building Council’s (IGBC) Construction Materials Exchange (CMEx) pilot project, funded by the Irish Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. The project aims to use digital product passports and an online platform as a mechanism to boost the reuse of materials from the construction industry waste stream. The IGBC is partnering with the Netherland’s Excess Materials Exchange, which operates an online materials platform and has run a number of similar pilots in different countries.
The pilot project was only recently launched, but the IGBC has already identified several potential barriers to overcome before an online exchange platform to facilitate reuse in the Irish construction sector can be properly implemented. The IGBC has identified that general awareness of the circular economy within the construction sector is low, and while companies and contractors are excited to get involved in pilot programmes such as the CMEx, they are less committal once they understand the resource requirement.
“Digital product passports give materials a documented identity and value to enable them to remain visible in the economy”
Another barrier identified by the IGBC is the Irish government’s conservative approach to the implementation of the EU Waste Framework Directive, which has led to a perception of high litigation risk if materials are reused. The digital product passport experience in other member states, such as the Netherlands, shows that this does not need to be the case, and that implementing these platforms could bring huge cost and environmental benefits.
With the publication of the EPA’s new best practice guidelines for the preparation of resource and waste management plans for construction and demolition projects, things are clearly moving in the right direction. The guidelines promote more circular design and construction principles, including calls for developing digital logbooks for buildings.
The digital product passport has an important future role to play in providing an extensive, continuously updated information repository for the construction industry, which will facilitate more materials to be reused and stop materials from entering waste streams.
Aoife O’Donnell is a senior sustainability manager at Davy Horizons.
Ellie Walshe, MIEMA is a senior sustainability manager at Davy Horizons.