Nature is circular… And our economy?

Published on Monday, 8 March 2021

“The construction industry is one of the sectors that generate the greatest environmental impact. What attracts me to bioconstruction is the opportunity to build with natural or recycled, local, abundant and renewable materials, which adapt to the inhabitants' needs. These generate minimal environmental impact and help create healthy and comfortable spaces”

– says Juanjo García

"It amuses me when I'm asked me 'how durable a clay house is? Well, there are clay houses that are hundreds of years old, and they are still standing," laughs García.

Despite this, he and his team of experts have had to prove these materials' effectiveness to the authorities. They have carried out laboratory tests for permeability and fire resistance, showing, for example, that a wall made from wooden pallets can resist fire for more than two-and-a-half hours. In contrast, legal requirements for a building made from traditional construction materials can fight fire for only 30 minutes.

"We don't work with natural and recycled materials just for the sake of it, out of some longing to be hippies. I am an engineer, and I teach engineering students that these materials have excellent properties (...) Today we use the term 'bioconstruction,' but these were the only types of construction materials available for centuries. We use ancestral techniques, improved and adapted to current demands."

Straw, pallets, and mud are all raw materials that are regaining relevance today as we face the challenge of adapting to and mitigating climate change. If a 'bio-built' house has to be demolished, it returns to nature, generating an organic cycle that does not harm the ecosystem. In addition to being economically viable, they offer the structural and comfort standards typical of modern construction. This way of understanding production processes fits perfectly with the circular economic model.

What is a circular economy?

Green buildings are one of the many examples of where you can start thinking about design from a circular economy perspective, in other words, right from the planning stage. One can start thinking about how a commercial product or its components can be long-lasting and, once they have served their purpose, they can be reused, repaired, or re-valued for other purposes. Alternatively, they can be returned to nature without causing a negative environmental impact.

During this transformative period, it is essential to learn about this new way of understanding the economy, which still has a long way to go. A survey of 210 Chilean companies, carried out by environmental consulting firm Pipartner Group, showed that 42% of interviewees were still unfamiliar with the circular economy's principles even though 86% said they wanted to find out more and 83% intended to implement them.

One of the keys to understanding the circular economy is first looking at how the national and global economy works today. It operates with linear logic, that is, to extract, produce, consume and dispose of.

Consequently, millions of tons of non-organic waste have accumulated, and the planet's natural resources have been systematically overexploited. According to the Global Footprint Network, if the same extractive trend continues, the Earth will need 50% more energy, 35% more food, and 40% more water in nine more years.

The same institution also predicts the so-called "Ecological Overdraft Day" (or "Earth Overshoot Day") for each country in the world, which indicates the time of year in which each nation has already consumed all the natural resources that the Earth can regenerate in one year. In 2020 the world average was August 22. For Chile, it was May 18, making it the fastest country in Latin America to use up all the natural resources that ecosystems can regenerate in a year while beginning to consume those of future generations.

“The outlook is not rosy. If we continue at this rate of consumption, between now and 2050, it will take three planets to supply the amount of natural resources needed to meet demand for construction in our cities, for transport and for food,” according to Enel Chile's head of Circular Economy, Natalia Correa. Correa has studies in agronomy engineering and economics from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and an MAB from the Texas A&M University.

“In nature, the different organisms collaborate generating virtuous cycles, maintaining the health of the ecosystem as a whole, it is circular. Fruit falls from a tree, and these are transformed into food for other living beings, and then the seeds form part of an infinite cycle. Our model, on the other hand, is linear. The challenge is to learn from nature and completely transform the mindset of how we conceive the relationships that occur in the different subsystems that make up society”

– says Natalia Correa

This new way of looking at things aims to prioritize materials that do not harm the environment. It also seeks to tend towards a more efficient and rational use of resources—maximizing their use and useful life and reincorporating these materials into the production chain at the end of their useful life. This should be achievable without compromising the quality of life of present and future generations and allowing natural systems regeneration.

It is a collaborative adventure, where innovation, new technologies, and cultural change are needed. This can be achieved by transferring knowledge about this new economic system so we can start creating projects that incorporate this new way of understanding the economy right from the design phase.

"Generating awareness is a great challenge in itself. What must change is the mindset, the way we conceive things from the outset. So, how can a company rethink the value it provides for its customers and take responsibility for the impact caused by what it sells? How can it integrate that concept from the design stage so that that negative impact is minimal, and how does its product serve that purpose? That is why there is a trend for companies to no longer market products per se but the value that these products deliver to their customers. For example, there are car dealers that no longer sell cars but mobility. The companies retain ownership of the cars. Therefore, they design for longevity." Consumers start asking 'Do I really need to live with so many things? Why do I consume what I consume and what impact do my consumption decisions have,' "says Correa.

This is also what Juanjo García believes. From his office in Coronel, in the Biobío Region, he believes that ​​bioconstruction in Chile is, "Reaching breakeven. Chile is a reference point for Latin America because of its advances in research and science. But there is still a long way to go, and that's where we are."