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How city residents can support the transition to a circular economy for the built environment

By Georgina Eldridge

When we talk about taking individual action on reducing waste and living more ‘circular’ to help tackle the climate crisis, we might think about doing things like ditching single-use takeaway cups, buying unpackaged food, selling and donating pre-loved clothes, or recycling our old, broken electrical devices – all manageable actions within our control.

But when it comes to our built environment – which is responsible for around one-third of global materials consumption and waste – it’s understandable to assume that if we’re not involved in designing, constructing and fitting out buildings ourselves, we’ll have little to no influence on the development - and sustainability - of urban environments.

However, city residents can do their bit to support the transition to a low-carbon, low-waste circular economy for the built environment. Here are seven key things you can do:

1. Join your local Tenants’ and Residents’ Association

A Tenants’ and Residents’ Association (TRA) is made up of residents living on an estate, block or street who have formed a TRA to improve the area in which they live. TRAs give residents a voice in how their area is managed by working with the housing services in their area. As a member of your local TRA, you can ask housing providers to manage properties more sustainably – e.g. reusing building materials and repairing rather than replacing broken facilities. If there’s no TRA in your area, consider starting one! Visit your local council’s website for information on how to start one.

2. Have your say on local planning processes

Residents getting involved in their local planning processes is essential to bring about better planning outcomes, so take part in consultations regarding the development of the built environment in your local area or city. When developers are proposing to demolish buildings, request that they retrofit them instead. Put pressure on your local authority to consider circularity in their decisions, and lobby your local council or MP to adopt circular policies and practices locally.

3. Make your home renovation circular

When renovating your own property, instead of throwing everything out, think about what you can keep in situ or refurbish. Can items be used elsewhere in your property, or could they be sold or given away locally? Ask your builder to source second-hand materials – eBay, Community Wood Recycling, Community RePaint and Salvo are good places to look. If you’re employing an architect, specify circular construction principles in the brief. Likewise, when builders are pricing for your project, make sure you ask them upfront to reclaim any materials that might be able to be used again, and ask them wherever possible to use recycled or second-hand materials in your project.

4. Sell or donate construction materials and items from your home projects

When renovating your home or project, try to find takers for materials and items you can’t reuse before they’re due to come out of the property, so they never hit the skip and so the builder doesn’t have to store them on site. Construction leftovers like half tins of paint can be donated to Community RePaint; pallets are often useful to individuals and community groups; and Freegle is good for giving all sorts of things away.

5. Buy second-hand furniture, fixtures and fittings

Out with the ‘new’ and in with the ‘old’: choose second-hand furniture, fixtures and fittings. Buying second-hand items reduces the demand on manufacturers to produce new items made from precious raw materials. It also helps reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfill or is incinerated, contributing to the release of greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Buying second-hand is usually cheaper too, helping you save money and protect the environment.

6. Borrow - rather than buy - household items

The average drill is used for just 13 minutes in its lifetime, and yet many of us still shell out to own one, even if we won’t use it regularly. What’s more, some 80% of household items are typically used less than once per month. So next time you do some DIY at home, see if you can borrow – rather than buy – a drill and other such equipment from friends, family, neighbours or within your local community. See if there’s a Library of Things or equivalent in your area, or download a community sharing app like OLIO to see what’s available to borrow in your neighbourhood. Borrowing is much cheaper than buying (and sometimes it’s free) – plus you’ll save on storage space.

7. Repair your broken items

Repairing the items we already own is a key part of the circular economy – and the demand for repair is rising: a 2021 survey showed that 75% of Londoners agreed that we need to repair more if we are to tackle the climate emergency. See if you can learn how to repair some of the basic items around your home. You can learn repair skills from an online video tutorial, or you can attend a repair workshop or masterclass in your area. Alternatively, seek out local repair businesses near you, or return your broken items to the original manufacturer to repair, if your item is still within warranty.

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