The Circular Office
The Circular Future: Rethinking Sustainability in Office Spaces
The circular economy—often spoken about, yet frequently misunderstood. So, what does it truly entail?
In our latest episode of The Spaces That Shape Us, we discuss the concept and its role in creating office spaces to not only serve our needs but also tread lightly on our planet
Hollie Sanglier, host and Marketing Director for AW Spaces was joined by two pioneers who've etched significant footprints in this realm. Agustina Memoli, the dynamic Co-Founder of Uplyfted, a trailblazing flooring company, and Dr. Greg Lavery, the visionary Director of Rype Office, renowned for its innovative approach to office furniture.
The conversation began with Hollie asking Greg to define what the circular economy actually means. He explains that the term "circular economy" acts as an umbrella for reuse, refurbishment, remanufacturing, and recycling—or the "four Rs." Greg emphasizes that each R represents a different facet of the circular approach. For instance, while recycling involves breaking down and reconstructing materials, reuse might simply be repurposing existing office furniture for a new space. He champions remanufacturing as the future, asserting its potential for quality assurance, cost savings, and local community benefits, especially when compared to the linear economy's model of use and discard.
Agustina Memoli extends this perspective by highlighting the evolution of the circular economy's goals. While it initially focused on waste reduction, its ambition has grown to encompass creating enhanced and sustainable value. "It's about keeping things, keeping on," she notes, emphasizing the objective to extend the lifecycle of products and materials in our economy.
With this foundation in mind, our conversation with Agustina and Greg unraveled the nuances, challenges, and promise of sustainable office spaces in the circular economy era.
The Power of Remanufacturing
Dr. Greg Lavery of Rype Office is at the forefront of championing the potential of remanufacturing. Every working day in the UK, 500 tons of furniture, equivalent to ten large lorry loads, get discarded. This isn't just about waste—it's about the lost craftsmanship and energy invested in those pieces.
Rype Office has spent eight years perfecting methods to rejuvenate these discarded items back to their 'as new' state. Through grants like those from Innovate UK, they've developed innovative processes, even for seemingly simple tasks like removing scratches from a plastic chair.
But it's more than just restoration. Greg's company challenges the linear economy's "buy new, discard old" mindset. Instead, they sell the same remanufactured piece multiple times, embodying the circular economy's ethos. As pieces get reused, their environmental footprint diminishes, making a significant stride toward sustainability.
Breathing New Life into Carpet Tiles
Agustina Memoli illuminated the transformative journey of Uplyfted, a company that sits at the intersection of sustainability and societal need. Carpet tiles, despite their durability and 15-year lifespan, often find their way to landfills within just 3 to 5 years of use in the UK.
Recognizing this waste, Uplyfted partners with leading manufacturers to reclaim and refurbish these tiles. Parallelly, a prevalent issue is the absence of flooring in many UK homes rented out by housing associations, impacting families' well-being.
Addressing both these challenges, Uplyfted provides these nearly-new, high-quality tiles to housing providers, ensuring warmer, comfortable homes and reducing environmental waste. This dual-impact model not only serves the environment but also uplifts communities, underscoring Uplyfted's commitment to a circular economy.
The Battle of Perception in the Market
Greg touches on the prominence of traditional linear economy suppliers, stating:
"The problem for new solutions is they're often offered by smaller companies like ours who don't have enormous marketing budgets."
He explains how these heavyweights, with their vast marketing prowess, often influence designers. Despite their 'green' image, many can't genuinely shift to a circular model because of geographically centralized production processes.
Trials: Seeing is Believing
Greg suggests a practical approach for those skeptical about the authenticity and quality of circular providers. He advocates for firsthand experience:
"We always say if you're thinking about the circular economy, the first thing you do is a trial... it's all about touching and feeling it and getting comfortable with this new way of doing business."
The Complexity of the Value Chain
Agustina delves into the intricacies of the built environment's value chain, stating:
"One of the challenges is the value chain of the built environment, which is complex, and you need the right stakeholder at the right time, making the right decision."
From her experience with large manufacturers, she emphasizes that true sustainability requires systemic shifts that go beyond just using recycled materials or renewable energy in factories.
With the sustainability movement gaining momentum, the challenge of greenwashing—making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about a product's environmental benefits—has become prominent. Dr. Lavery's stance on this was clear: genuine responsibility is paramount. He stressed, "If manufacturers claim recyclability, they should also be willing to take back their products and recycle them."
Consumer Concerns: Addressing the Cost Myth
Both Agustina and Dr. Lavery demystified the notion that sustainable equals expensive. Dr. Lavery pointed out the economic benefits of the circular approach, noting, "Remanufactured products... can be 20-30% cheaper than their new counterparts, with an 80% lower carbon footprint."
The Sustainability Matrix: Energy, Production, and Consumption
Agustina raised a pivotal insight from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation—while energy accounts for 55% of climate issues, a staggering 45% results from our production and consumption modes. This balance emphasizes the crucial role of the circular economy, an approach anchored in resource reuse and recycling. Reflecting on the legislative future, Agustina observed, "it's very probable that in the UK in the next two, three years the built environment will be facing the extended productive responsibility type of legislation, EPR..."
Legislation: The Catalyst for a Greener Tomorrow
Dr. Lavery highlighted the transformative power of legislative changes, particularly in Europe. Recounting recent milestones, he mentioned, "In 2021, the French government passed a new law... every single French government agency... must purchase at least 20% of their furniture second life." Such mandates, while specific to one country, hint at the broader, global move towards sustainable practices and their widespread implications. He further praised the UK for pioneering landfill tax, emphasizing the incentive it created for sustainable disposal practices.
A Look Ahead
With 2050 carbon reduction targets looming and companies setting even earlier goals, there's a mounting emphasis on making office components circular. Agustina, expressing her optimism, feels the next five years will usher in significant changes, driven by "technology, innovation, and a shift in societal values."
The narrative surrounding the circular economy is clear—it's not just about the environment but interweaves economic and social threads. With every carpet tile repurposed and every piece of legislation enacted, we are shaping a future that values sustainability in every dimension.
Forward-thinking, collaboration, and true commitment are our tools. The future office is not just a workspace—it's a testament to our evolving values.