Roundabouts, roads and the circular economy

CEWales member, Maple Consulting, are working with ITEN, a network of independent experts in transport providing research, consultancy, strategic advice and scientific expertise to help decarbonise road building and maintenance

The Circular Economy in Road Construction and Maintenance (CERCOM) consortium brings together leading European researchers, academics, engineers, and consultants, who are well placed to deliver on the resource efficiency (RE) and circular economy (CE) objectives of the Transnational Road Research Programme Call 2020. Here they discuss the launch of their research project.

The concept of circular economy is not new and appeared as a potential policy goal in the late 1970s. While the need to adopt the concept has gained in importance, practical implementation has been limited, including in the highways sector.

Achieving the transformation has been difficult without a specific and detailed plan, supported by legislation. A prerequisite for progress is a clear definition of CE and what it means for highways authorities. This is no easy task, as currently there are over 200 definitions of CE. Also, while recycling, resource efficiency and utilisation of waste materials in pavement layers, consistent with the principles of CE, are not new to highway authorities, they provide only part of the solution. Recycled pavements still require large resource inputs, including energy, and few recycling options exist for many of the other asset classes.

To transform from the current linear to a truly circular economy, there is need to establish a common and workable interpretation of CE as applied to highways and its role within infrastructure delivery. This must be reflected in changes to procurement practices and improved communication with the supply chain to achieve a reduction in the consumption of resources, greater reuse and designing of waste out of the system.

To address some of the challenges associated with improving resource efficiency and transforming to a circular economy, the Conference of European Road Directors (CEDR) launched the Transnational Road Research Programme Call 2020, managed by the Danish Road Directorate.

They have recently awarded research projects covering the following topics:

A. Measuring and managing performance

B. Public procurement to foster circular innovation

C. Material research for roadside infrastructure

The aim of this programme is to accelerate the transition of the highways sector in Europe, from linear economy, into resource efficient circular economy.

CEDR countries are facing common issues with large amounts of waste, use of virgin materials, nature loss and climate change.

Road infrastructure maintenance accounts for significant resource consumption and generates large quantities of waste. As such, road owners need to play their part in ensuring sustainable resource use, becoming more material efficient, reusing, and repairing before recycling, and employing more renewable and biodegradable materials.

The move to CE will therefore imply profound changes in matters such as organisational and business models, the basis for decision-making, manufacturing, and construction processes. However, if authorities combine efforts and harmonise standards, it will enable the construction sector to take the necessary steps.

CERCOM is one of the projects awarded by CEDR, covering topics A and B above. The CERCOM project will be delivered by a consortium of experts and will determine where road authorities are on the transition to circular economy, seeking to understand the barriers and enablers to go further.

An innovative aspect of the project will be the development of a risk-based framework and management tool to facilitate a step change in the adoption of RE and CE principles in procurement and multi-lifecycle management across Europe. The team will engage widely to understand stakeholder needs, develop technical solutions, and provide resources to support road authorities in this transformation.

The challenges of achieving this are recognised. For example, economic analyses will need to take a broader definition of ‘value,’ externalities will have to be appropriately addressed and multiple lifecycles must be considered.

It will require innovative approaches to construction and maintenance to be adopted that may, as yet, have little by way of track record. It is proposed that risk analysis is a useful and appropriate tool in this regard. Already accepted to optimise infrastructure lifecycle performance, it offers in a statistically appropriate manner the framework to model the uncertainties associated with developing and adopting the principles of RE and CE.

As the project develops, case studies will test the validity of the risk-based approach over a range of technical areas (new material applications, recycling, and innovative technologies) at different levels of development and maturity. A sensitivity analysis will be undertaken to evaluate the robustness of the model results, identify the model boundaries (sensitivity to uncertain parameters), and assess the availability and reliability of the input data. The analysis of the case studies will uncover the difficulties and highlight the opportunities for the implementation of RE and CE principles.

To complete the project, a resource pack and training materials will be developed and delivered to support road authorities in achieving transformational change in their approaches to RE and CE. The knowledge transferred will enable road authorities to adopt circular procurement in their specifications, delivery and down-stream operations of road infrastructure maintenance and management. As a result, RE and CE can become inherent in public procurement and not an ‘add-on.’