Green Buildings and a Circular Economy

It’s well documented that our global society today is resource intensive and that human activities are accelerating global climate change, and that we must take urgent action. While there are several different pathways for humanity to make changes to help our climate, one that has gained significant traction in recent years is transitioning to a circular economy.

Our current global economy is a ‘take-make-waste’ extractive economy, which relies on fossil fuels and also does not effectively manage resources for the long-term.  When it comes to global emissions, 45% comes from producing and disposing of products we use every day. This is ultimately what a circular economy  approach aims to address.

In 2020, we’ve seen governments (like the EU, and Amsterdam)  and companies (like Blackrock, Google, Ikea, etc.) establish circularity goals and adopt circular economy action plans to change the way we do business in the modern era. Here in the U.S., we’ve already seen cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and more lay out goals to be zero waste cities before 2050 or sooner.

Buildings have an important role in helping companies, cities, and countries to achieve these goals because their construction and operation makes up approximately 40% of the volume of American landfills. Throughout a building’s life cycle, there are opportunities for us to design out wastes and keep materials in use across all segments of the value chain.

TRUE Zero Waste

When it comes to reducing waste in building operations, resources like the TRUE Zero Waste certification can provide an accessible roadmap to take action and guide buildings to be more sustainable, resource efficient, and ultimately more circular. The certification tackles key areas both upstream and downstream, encouraging the procurement of environmentally preferable products as well as effectively managing them to ensure they can be reused, recycled, or composted after they are used. For projects that are just beginning their journey to zero waste, there is also the TRUE Precertification pathway, which helps projects establish the building blocks to reach zero waste and qualify for the full certification. When it comes to new projects, the LEED Certification has been working to address construction waste management for a long time now through its Prerequisites and Credits, which require and incentivize LEED projects to reduce, reuse, source separate, and recycle as much waste as they can. The TRUE Certification is also releasing a Zero Waste Construction sites scorecard, which will be an excellent crossover between principles established in both the LEED and TRUE Certifications, and can guide construction project teams to adopt more circular principles.

Photo courtesy of Kilroy Realty Corp. 350 Mission, Location: San Francisco CA, Architect: Kilroy Realty

An excellent strategy for getting started is to learn from the successes of other projects. TRUE has a Project Directory, where anyone can go and review the case studies of each project and learn about practices, policies, and other strategies that helped them to achieve TRUE Zero Waste Certification. In 2018, Kilroy Realty Corporation’s 350 Mission Street property achieved TRUE Zero Waste Certification at the Gold level and serves as a great example of a building focused on waste reduction. 350 Mission Street, encompassing 455,340 square feet, was the largest single commercial property in the world to achieve TRUE Zero Waste certification and was also the first commercial building in San Francisco to do so. (350 Mission Street is additionally LEED Platinum, ENERGY STAR and Fitwel certified.)

The waste diversion threshold for TRUE Zero Waste certification is 90% diversion, which is what 350 Mission Street was targeting. The project ultimately achieved a 91.9% diversion in addition to meeting other rigorous performance requirements. The project achieved this by diverting 610,000 pounds of waste in 2018, resulting in a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 24,000 pounds

  • Key strategies that enabled 350 Mission to achieve TRUE Zero Waste certification include:
  • Investing in reusable pantry supplies and ordering in bulk
  • Replacing individual desk bins with central waste collection with appropriate signage
  • Developing ongoing education and awareness programs
  • Implementing post-sorting services to further increase occupant diversion rates
  • Procuring critical consulting services from All About Waste
  • Onsite performance verification with representatives from the Green Building Certification Institute

While there are many ways we can aspire to reduce the carbon footprint of the built environment, including buildings in the transition to a circular economy is critical. To learn more about the circular economy and how you can help the transition, check out the TRUE Certification or the Ellen McArthur Foundation for more resources!

An edited version of this appears on USGBC National (GBCI).

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