The Circular Economy: How LEED v4.1 Supports Reducing Waste

Posted On: 
Jan 20, 2020
Circular Economy

How do we create a circular economy? How can LEED v4.1 help support the reduction of waste streams in manufacturing? These are critical issues as we seek to maximize the triple bottom approach. The risks of not doing anything are severe and the rewards of integrating these strategies could help redefine what sustainable manufacturing is.

We will provide an examination of LEED v4.1 strategies and how they relate to a circular economy. With each new version, LEED transforms the green building industry, improves energy performance, promotes human health, and integrative building design. LEED v4.1 updates referenced standards and allows projects to earn LEED points through building performance monitoring.

What Is A Circular Economy?

A circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy. For example, in the construction industry we would keep building products like masonry, carpet, steel roofing, etc. in use for as long as possible. A circular economy extracts the maximum value from these building products in use, then recovers and regenerates the building at the end of life.

LEED v4.1 Materials and Resources credits such as whole-building assessment, material ingredient reporting, and construction waste management all reward optimal use of building materials. Since the launch of the beta versions of LEED v4.1 for BD+C and ID+C, project teams have significantly pursued the LEED v4.1 MR credits for individual credit substitutions for LEED v4 projects. There has been a strong market response for the new changes in LEED v4.1.

A primary strategy is to eliminate waste from the get-go. There are several LEED v4.1 credits available to reduce demand for new materials, reduce waste, and reuse existing materials. In addition, the GBCI administers the Total Resource Use and Efficiency (TRUE) Zero Waste Program. This certification allows facilities to define, pursue, and achieve zero waste goals. TRUE is a method for manufacturers to reduce air pollution, material waste, and tainting water supplies.

Industry Leaders

One of the ideas engrained in a circular economy is to use material wastes to create new products. There are several progressive companies that reuse waste to manufacture new building products. Two progressive leaders in the marketplace are TOTO and Shaw. TOTO has very high production standards for its line of toilets. Therefore, toilets with any defects are scrapped and the waste material is used to make Crossvilleporcelain tiles.

Instead of dumping broken toilets and porcelain waste to the landfill, the fired porcelain waste is reconstituted to make decorative tiles. The path to this innovative solution took multiple test-runs before achieving success. Initially, TOTO partnered with the University of Georgia to use crushed porcelain to rebuild oyster beds along the Georgia coast. While the program was a success, the broken porcelain pieces were not visually pleasing during low tide.

The next test-run was a partnership between TOTO and local Atlanta construction suppliers. The crushed porcelain was used for back-fill for construction projects or as an aggregate base for road construction. This approach was successful but TOTO wanted their waste stream to even go further in creating new building products.

Crossville’s team conducted tests to determine the ingredients in the scrap porcelain. The team discovered that the constituent components used by both companies were similar and that TOTO’s crushed porcelain could be used as a resource for raw material to produce their porcelain tile. Crossville now takes all of the porcelain scrap, including toilets, tanks, and lavatories, to achieve an initiative of zero waste. The partnership between TOTO and Crossville has helped both companies save money and decrease environmental impacts. 

Another company that has been a leader in the industry is Shaw Industries. The company uses Cradle to Cradle (C2C) to implement their sustainable practices. Shaw achieves carpet-to-carpet recycling and during the initial process they realized they needed to remove problematic ingredients such as polyvinyl chloride and antimony trioxide flame retardants. Shaw optimized their carpet tiles and didn’t have to downcycle the products with every iteration.

Shaw spent years vetting the technology to reclaim and reprocess their carpet tiles. In turn, they demanded more form their supply chain quit using chemicals on banded lists. Shaw asks suppliers to reformulate their products if they don’t meet their strict environmental standards. Since Shaw is the largest carpet manufacturer in the world, they can leverage their brand to make things happen.

Going beyond current industry practices, Shaw is working with contractors and subcontractors to remove old carpet. The company has their contact information on the back of every carpet tile and Shaw will have it returned at no-cost. The Cradle to Cradle framework has helped Shaw achieve its goals and promote a circular economy. The Cradle to Cradle certification and Health Product Declaration (HPD) are used in LEED v4.1 to achieve MR credits.

Ideally, the future of manufacturing will allow every company to plan ahead for the end-of-cycle of their building products. There still is significant challenges involving product optimization, supply chain issues, and infrastructure that need to be addressed. However, the future is promising with TOTO and Shaw leading the way.

For more information on TOTO’s sustainable manufacturing processes, we highly recommend their free AIA/GBCI video case study Walking the Talk. For more information on LEED v4.1 credits and strategies, please visit USGBC.


For more information or to discuss the topic of this blog, please contact Brad Blank