NZ’s circular economy model office project tackling fitout churn

The New Zealand Sustainable Business Network is tackling office fitout churn that sees hundreds of thousands of tonnes of useable materials, furniture and equipment every year going to landfill.

The issue, which has recently come to the fore in Australia, is being tackled by a Circular Economy Model Office project that takes a multi-level approach including designers, manufacturers, asset owners, leasing agents and building tenants.

Network general manager for the NZSBN James Griffin said the CEMO was a simple process for reducing office refurbishment waste that had been developed through a process of stakeholder engagement, workshops and a pilot project undertaken by Auckland City Council when it shifted into a new head office.

The working group for the project includes representatives from designers, manufacturers, specifiers, the NZ Green Building Council, NZ Institute of Architects, Designers Institute of NZ, individual architecture firms and Auckland City Council.

Mr Griffin said one of the project’s key aims was to raise awareness of the kinds of take-back, recycling, upcycling and repurposing options that existed in the country, while also creating more options through encouraging manufacturers to adopt a stewardship approach to their wares.

Currently, there are only a few government-accredited product take-back program in NZ, one being a program operated by Interface carpet supplier and installer INZIDE, he said.

“But we need to increase knowledge of the service, because the carpet tiles are still often ending up in skips. A lot of this project is about increasing the awareness of programs.”

The project has developed an order or priorities for designers, asset owners and tenants in approaching the issue of fitout churn. Number one, Mr Griffin said, was encouraging the direct in-situ reuse of as much of the existing fitout materials as possible.

“It starts with the architect. Instead of looking at a blank floorplan they look at what is there already and decide, can it be re-purposed [in the new design]?

“Starting at the design stage is critical to retrofit this [sustainable] thinking. A small change in the design process results in a big change in the final results.”

Mr Griffin said designers and architects should be designing for longevity in fitouts, and avoiding “overtly fashionable” elements that would quickly lose their appeal and be churned.

“The other part of this is for us to celebrate the innovations that can be achieved. For example, Auckland City Council repurposed flat glass into white boards fixed to the wall.”

In terms of furnishings, CEMO is building links with community organisations who can come in and take away useable items, and there are also commercial organisations that will come into an office, appraise items and auction them. Some firms also directly on-sell used furnishings through the NZ-based digital platform Trade Me.

The second level of waste-avoidance is to refurbish items through manufacturers, such as Philips Lighting, which operates a lighting refurbishment program in NZ.

Recycling of fitout materials is the third option, and the CEMO project will outline the pathways that currently exist such as the recycling of flat glass for glass wool insulation; recycling of some types of gyprock for compost; recycling of copper cable and steel; and recycling of timbers for fuel.

One of the specialist recycling organisations is Abilities Group, a disability employment organisation who recycle “anything with a plug”, including cables, telecommunications equipment, computers, TVs and white goods. Unlike Australia, NZ currently has no government-accredited industry-backed recycling scheme for e-waste.

“Those sorts of things are [options] not everyone is aware of,” Mr Griffin said.

A lack of current data

Mr Griffin said one of the big issues the organisation has had in developing CEMO was the lack of current or recent national data on what went into NZ landfills.

The most recent data was collected in 2006, and 3.2 million tonnes of waste were going to regulated landfills annually. Mr Griffin said it has been estimated that 50 per cent of all waste in the country was from construction and demolition, and that 20 per cent of that was entering regulated landfills, and 80 per cent being used as “clean fill” for construction sites.

The responsibility of manufacturers to ensure products can be and are recycled is something the project will be promoting.

“We’re keen to put that responsibility [for recyclability] back onto manufacturers, after all, they are benefiting from selling their products into the project,” Mr Griffin said.

Manufacturers are being asked to provide an end-of-life product stewardship solution, and the onus is also being put on them to ensure products have a long useful life and are recyclable. A number of workshops have been held with manufacturers around this aspect of the project, and CEMO will include stewardship certification that manufacturers can provide to project designers and proponents.

The CEMO guide that is being officially launched in Auckland on 25 June will be accompanied by a materials matrix that categorises whether materials can be reused, repurposed or, where they can, recycled.

Mr Griffin said the matrix would be a live document that gets added to as more stakeholders engage with the project.

Engaging the asset owners

At the other end of the process are the leasing agents and asset owners themselves. NZSBN has spoken with representatives from asset owning organisations and leasing agents, and Mr Griffin said they were “keen on finding a different solution” to fitout churn.

Owners are in favour of avoiding things being simply thrown out in landfill, and have given positive initial feedback about how CEMO can also generate employment in the areas of repurposing, refurbishing and recycling.

“Our role is to show [owners and tenants] how offices can still be fit for purpose and still fit the brief,” he said.

“There is a wide understanding that gutting offices and sending everything to landfill is crazy. We are looking to make it as easy as possible [not to], as well as cost-effective.”

He said there would be further conversations with agents and asset owners around the leasing process once the guide was released.

Aspects to discuss include how incoming tenants can negotiate with outgoing tenants early on, and ascertain what elements of the fitout are there and can be retained or repurposed in-situ.

“CEMO is going to require the whole system, including leasing agents.”

The 500-odd members of the NZSBN also need to speak as one voice on the issues, he said, and they need to encourage others to talk to their landlords and request sustainable solutions.

“One of things we will be providing [for those who participate] is a CEMO declaration that can be filled out and hung on the wall of the new office. It will show how much of the fitout they recycled, how much of it met the stewardship guidelines and how much waste was diverted from landfill,” Mr Griffin said.

“Hopefully firms will compete on that, and it is also a reward.”

The NZGBC will also be rewarding projects that are seeking a Green Star rating for a fitout or refurbishment for taking the CEMO approach with “quite a few points to be gained” under both innovation and recycling credits.

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