Welcome to the SUSS series of podcasts where we explore ideas, solutions and collaborations that are making a difference in the lives of individuals, families, communities and beyond.
This series features guests who discuss how we can achieve social impact for the greater good, no matter how big or small.
Previously on SUSS Podcast…
… Design for Disassembly – this is the concept that building materials and components are broken down, reused and repurposed when their life cycle ends and then this minimises waste and also reduces environmental footprint.
Currently practised in Singapore is the Design for Manufacturing and Assembly. With this concept designed for manufacturing and disassembly, if we integrate the concept of disassembly, then the prefabricated building components assembled on site may have a chance to be disassembled and reused again, maybe in another future, on another site.
For instance, when I was studying in Australia, our building was considered a global excellence leader in terms of green building. And also, I was introduced to disassembly and even reuse because some of the materials used in that new building actually came from recycled materials. For example, recycled wood and this is the one used for the flooring for our second floor. And in fact, we don't use nails, but bags.
So what you're saying is that a circular economy can enable us to achieve sustainability, right?
And would you consider that to be an accurate way to describe the relationship or is the difference between the two more complex than that?
Actually, both are crucial in solving global environmental and social issues. When we're talking about sustainability, sustainability aids economic growth, social progress, and environmental protection, while circular economy assists in reducing the consumption of resources and materials.
So thereby it lowers waste created from anthropological activities. So circular economy and sustainability actually goes hand-in-hand at the same time and can be used interchangeably. However, a circular economy and sustainability differ in the sense that when we're talking about circular economy, this is more focused on environmental performance improvement.
While sustainability on the other hand is a more holistic perspective that addresses the three pillars of sustainability, like social aspect, environmental protection and economic development. And I could just relate this to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Some of these goals have indirect contributions to our circular economy. For instance, some of the sustainable development goals talk about sustainable management of water and sanitation, affordable, sustainable energy for all, conservation of seas, marine resources and of course, sustainability in managing forests. And of course, preventing biodiversity loss.
Thanks for explaining the relationship between sustainability in the circular economy. One thing though, the world has become really used to the linear economy of make, use and dispose. So what advice do you have for us on what needs to be done to lay the groundwork for a circular economy?
In one of my research projects, I try to gather opinions from experts and practitioners in the circular economy. And these are some of the findings. There is a need to change the ways developers and urban planners think because they are responsible for developing master plans for a country, right? They really need to facilitate a circular economy by adopting circular economy business models.
At the same time, whenever we do our master plans, we already think of sustainability, we think about providing more greeneries, creating green buildings and using renewable energy. However, the concept of circular economy is not yet embedded in every master plan for circular cities or circular buildings, right?
The second one is more on the need for government led think tanks and policies. So here, the government can also create new policies or even amend existing ones so as to encourage circular economy practices. Well, on the other hand, research institutes will also help the government in developing these types of policies by finding innovative ways to facilitate a circular economy.
There should be some collaboration, not only with government and research. Maybe even the private sector, to do something, to find approaches or how they can implement circular economy practices or initiatives. And then the last one is more about the need to counter consumerism.
Because we know, what comes to mind when you're talking about a circular economy is always like products, right? It's not about buildings or the environment. If I relate this to products, then the consumers are the end users of these products. They should have the willingness to practise circular economy so that waste should be thrown properly.
An example, there's a fashion brand. It tries to disassemble and re-commercialise industrial waste materials and they use it for designing jackets, bags, and even other similar products which is quite good, because like they try to upcycle it. So imagine industrial materials, you know, which is already disused and they use creative ways to upgrade it into saleable products or fashionable products.
That's really innovative!
And another way of advocating the practice of circular economy is through educational institutions. For instance here in the Singapore University of Social Sciences, we do have our sustainability classes and circular economy related courses. And just recently, we launched our postgraduate program for facilities management, we also have one course that we developed on circular economy and facilities management.
That's really interesting to know what SUSS is doing in the circular economy space as well. So thanks for sharing all the different foundations in ground work that needs to be done. While people might accept the philosophical tenets of a circular economy and kind of agree with it intellectually, right? There are obviously everyday considerations that would make it really difficult for people to practise the principles of a circular economy.
I do understand. There are some obstacles that I can identify with, such as hard to meet consumers expectations because in this business world we all consider customer satisfaction and circular economy practices are less prioritised. And the second one is about conflicts in government regulations.
For instance, food labelling frequently contributes to confusion about safety of food products, where safe and edible food can be thrown away before its expiration date, instead of selling this at lower prices or even giving them away for free. And then the third one would be difficult business models of companies. We're quite familiar with fast fashion or fast furniture businesses, right? So companies adopt different business models to satisfy their consumers. And then this type of business model does not support a circular economy. So an example would be a tech company, which claims that they are a circular business.
But then some of their products are designed with a short life span and of course, this helps to ensure that people keep on buying new products frequently, right? And this is quite wasteful and unsustainable.
That sounds really frustrating. But I can also imagine detractors of a circular economy who will push back. They might even say this will never work. So should circular economy supporters accept that there are going to be trade-offs that will disadvantage certain parts of the economy when change happens?
Unfortunately, there will be collateral damage. So for instance, it will change the employment landscape. Some jobs may adapt or new jobs will emerge in the coming future. I can just relate this with the built environment profession also. So before, when a city is just starting, the designers are more in demand, right? So they design buildings, they create green buildings, good buildings. But then once the buildings are in stock, they need to be maintained, you need to manage this built asset. Then another profession comes in the way which become in demand also such as facilities management.
So even during the pandemic, the facilities management profession has been recognised because they are the ones managing these buildings during the pandemic, trying to keep it safe and also maintaining the indoor air quality of the building itself.
Secondly, it will affect the level of consumption. We are talking about circular economy practices. It will really reduce the consumption of brand new products, because we could keep talking about recycling materials, right? Or upcycled materials. So this also somehow limits options of our consumers. But then one thing good with that is there's a growing awareness of the practice and then people are not willing to pay more for recycled materials than opting for new products. So I could just remember when I was still studying in Japan, it's been practised that for instance, like computers or laptops, they are still good products, but then because of the upgrading, the owners would just put it in a recyclable area.
And then students can just take these products and use them because it's still good. Really good. So, maybe they have been practising circularity that time.
So actually what you're saying is circular economy is something that's a really old concept and we're just coming back to circular economy, almost?
I guess so, because like some already have been practising it and I'm sure it's not only practised in Japan, right? Maybe other countries also because I remember I used to hear from my grandparents that during the war, they were really trying to conserve resources. I heard from my grandparents that even eggshells, they have to pound it, right? And use it as fertiliser. Nothing is put to waste.
That's very interesting because it sounds like there's a lot of potential for us to see the connection or the dichotomy between some practices from the past. Maybe even indigenous practices, right, with how do we merge it with our current realities? It sounds like there's going to be a lot of change management that we'll have to do in order to succeed. So Sheila, I wanted to ask you, looking at the future, what do you hope the circular economy will achieve?
Well, I really hope that the circular economy is considered not only as an economic model. I hope it will really create a resource effective pattern of consumption, and then it will improve the economy, create more jobs and even raise profitability. And then also this kind of mindset may permit the government and other decision makers. And of course, I understand that it takes really political will for that one. And then one thing is a takeaway for me as an individual is that sustaining our built environment must start from within our souls.
When we sustain or even practise a circular economy, we have to start by doing it ourselves. And then when in little ways, just like what you did with your oven and not putting it into the incinerator, having it repaired and then still reusing it. It's quite good. So for me, I'd rather start from myself and advocate as a guardian or a steward for the built and natural environment.
Thank you, Sheila. I really hope that you'll be able to achieve everything that you just shared for all of our sakes. We often get really excited about that new BTO flat or that shiny office building. But not very many of us are aware of how the circular economy might actually address a lot of crucial sustainability issues.
It was insightful to hear the scale of impact that might be achieved through improving sustainability in the built environment sector, and it’s really exciting to hear about the circular economy principles that are increasingly being utilised in the built environment. I think it's a hopeful indication of the future of sustainability, but you also have shared that to achieve this will need to accept short and medium term changes and some collateral damage in service of the greater good in the long term. So Sheila, for all our future, I wish you every success in your quest to make the practice of circularity commonplace in the built environment. Once again, thanks for joining me on the show.
Thank you, Cynthia. I really enjoyed sharing about sustainability and circular economy.
I hope that individuals can play a major role in practising circular economy and sustainability by advocating as good stewards of the natural and built environment.
Individuals can do our part even in such little ways. It's like what you did. It's also a good inspiration for us. So I hope this will also be replicated by others and even maybe in bigger initiatives.
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