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Consistent approach to procurement across major infrastructure projects critical for circular economy, according to new white paper

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Construction of a mass transit train line in progress. A whole life approach to the development of critical infrastructure, with assets and materials kept at their highest value for as long as possible, has huge potential to deliver cost efficiencies, waste reduction and a lower carbon footprint on major projects, says the report.

A consistent approach to procurement across major infrastructure projects would help embed circular economy principles into infrastructure design and operation, according to a white paper published on 20 October by the AECOM-led Major Infrastructure – Resource Optimisation Group (MI-ROG). The white paper, Embedding Circular Economy Principles into Infrastructure Operator Procurement Activities, recommends that infrastructure owners and operators include procurement criteria focused on the circular economy from the outset of infrastructure schemes.

Embedding circular economy principles in infrastructure projects would generate positive environmental impacts and help build greater resilience in supply chains. With numerous infrastructure schemes in the pipeline, there is increasing pressure on the local availability of construction materials and associated logistical pinch-points. A whole life approach to the development of critical infrastructure, with assets and materials kept at their highest value for as long as possible, has huge potential to deliver cost efficiencies, waste reduction and a lower carbon footprint on major projects.

With the infrastructure sector’s greatest opportunity for contributing to the circular economy during the optioneering, feasibility and early design stages of schemes, the white paper identifies procurement policies as significant drivers in achieving the transition. It cites cross-sector collaboration and collective leadership as key to achieving this, recommending that organisations work together to develop a consistent approach to procurement across the UK’s pipeline of major infrastructure projects.

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The white paper looks at different ways of encouraging the uptake of this ethos, including evaluation processes that reward suppliers who demonstrate circular economy experience and approaches.

Innovative procurement that evaluates the ‘whole life value’ of materials throughout commissioning, maintenance and disposal, and not just price alone, should be considered, the MI-ROG white paper suggests. But the white paper also recognises that it is unrealistic to expect large infrastructure schemes to take on the risk of wholly new materials or methods with no track record. Cross-sector evaluations of new solutions through demonstration or pilot projects before widespread adoption will therefore be necessary.

Robert Spencer, Sustainability Director at AECOM and MI-ROG Chairman, said: “With ambitious new infrastructure projects and major renewal programmes in the pipeline, the UK is in an ideal position to begin its transition to the circular economy. Procurement is a critical stage of this process but existing technical standards can stifle innovation. There are ample opportunities to identify changes in procurement procedures, but mainstreaming circular economy principles will only be achieved through cross-sector collaboration.”

The white paper also identifies more effective engagement between procurement teams and project managers writing detailed specifications, as well as between operators and their suppliers, as key if organisations are to adopt circular economy principles early in the project lifecycle. Evaluation processes that reward suppliers who demonstrate circular economy experience and approaches is one way to encourage uptake, according to the white paper.

Infrastructure services firm AECOM founded MI-ROG in 2013 to foster collaboration and circular economy best practice in order to help meet the challenges of delivering infrastructure in a constrained economy. MI-ROG participants include representatives from the Environment Agency, Highways England, National Grid, Network Rail, Heathrow Airport Ltd and Tideway, among others. The white paper is the culmination of discussions within MI-ROG about the risks and opportunities associated with changes in procurement processes that help promote a circular economy approach.

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