Imagine that your house, your office, your grocery store, and your bank are all part of a database with information about what building materials they contain and how each can eventually be reused or recycled. It’s housed in something called a “materials passport,” a digital document that provides information about all of the materials in a product or building that gives them value for recovery and reuse. Using that information, we could extend the value and lifespan of building materials and reduce both the extraction of new resources and the dumping of materials in landfills. We could save the energy and labor costs of producing new materials, as well as the emissions released. Materials passports could change the way we design materials and buildings and the economics of construction.
The availability of this kind of information is key to the transition to a circular economy. And it’s not just hypothetical—materials passports are already being implemented in parts of Europe, where various nonprofit organizations are working with governments to assemble an infrastructure through which the circular economy characteristics of building materials (and buildings themselves) can be catalogued and disseminated. As more and more companies, governments, and organizations set their sights on circular economy goals, demand is growing for ways to maximize the potential of materials and components for recovery and reuse.
How do Materials Passports Fit into the Circular Economy?
The circular economy is configured in loops that, by eliminating waste, also eliminate the need for virgin materials. The most efficient loops are the tightest ones – maintaining and reusing materials to extend their useful lives – while the outer, looser loops refurbish, remanufacture, and recycle, processes that expend energy while still retaining a closed cycle. In the circular economy it’s crucial to think ahead to what will happen at a material’s end of life, in order to design and manufacture products that are reusable, recyclable, or at the very least won’t end up in landfills.
Materials passports are part of the solution to one of the building industry’s major problems: demolition. Traditional demolition reduces buildings to rubble, making it impossible to recover materials for reuse or recycling, or cycling through the loops of the circular economy. Instead, it’s a linear system. It squanders all of the potential value in a building’s materials—tiles, wood, windows, doors, and bricks—by cutting short their life cycles. Many materials might otherwise live longer useful lives, be used in different building products and take back programs, or simply be disposed of more responsibly. That’s why materials passports support deconstruction rather than demolition; building recycling and reuse rather than debris.
They also encourage designers and architects to design their products and materials for disassembly, and to think about how they might be used and reused in the future, considering conditions and technologies that don’t yet exist. And then there’s the digital infrastructure that must be built in order to access the kind of information available in a materials passport. A circular system will only be possible with a reliable and consistent flow of standardized information about material flows and composition. That’s why accessible digital platforms and infrastructure are key to the effective implementation of material passports.
What Does a Materials Passport Look Like?
For now, there’s no single standardized materials passport, so the document might take on any number of formats, from an Excel sheet to a three-dimensional model or a blockchain-based ledger. But they should contain similar information—about what materials make up its components, their origin, suppliers, current condition, real-time market value, and environmental impact.
Passports contain complex, detailed information, which can be challenging but also allows clients, governments, and other users to have a high-level understanding of a building’s material parts and their social, economic, and environmental value and impact. Materials passports aren’t just long lists of data; they’re meant to be tools that manufacturers can use to improve their products.
How is it Being Implemented?
One of the pioneers of material passports is the Dutch nonprofit, Madaster. Madaster’s passports divide a building into its layers, describing the materials in each and calculating a circularity index, which provides information about whether the materials are virgin or recycled, how they’re installed, and whether they can be reused. Another, the European Union’s Horizon 2020 project Buildings as Material Banks (BAMB), is an important initiative that has already generated more than 300 materials passports.
These initiatives are working with different European governments to implement policies and tax incentives that encourage the use of materials passports. Green building certifier BREEAM is also now awarding credits to projects that register materials passports. The United States doesn’t have a materials passport yet, but it could soon. Designers and other building industry professionals have sway in this. By asking suppliers about materials passports and pushing for companies to integrate them into their circularity goals, we can help make changes that reduce waste, increase value, and support the transition to a circular economy.