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Pioneering Slovenia’s transformation: A blueprint for advancing circular economy

The Republic of Slovenia and EIT Climate-KIC have developed the first portfolio of innovation actions under the ‘Deep Demonstration of Circular, Regenerative, and Low-Carbon Economy in Slovenia.’ 

The portfolio set its sights on several pivotal priorities: harnessing the potential of Secondary Raw Materials and construction waste materials, re-using and adapting infrastructure, eco-circular design, and NBS construction materials. The approach challenges conventional norms, urging policy decision-makers and other stakeholders to explore opportunities for impactful and sustainable change in the Built Environment value chain by bringing together diverse actors to lead this national transformation. 

Construction: turning a wasteful sector into a circular one

The construction sector in Slovenia poses some of the greatest challenges for circularity and at the same time offers one of the greatest potentials for a bio-economy based on wood as a carbon sink and secondary raw materials from industry (e.g., steel production) substituting for primary raw materials. It plays a critical role in promoting the circular economy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as buildings consume a lot of energy and contain large amounts of materials. Slovenian construction waste accounts for by far the largest share of material waste. In 2021, the amount of construction waste was almost twice as high as all other waste combined. Almost two thirds (6 million tons) of all waste generated was construction and demolition waste, mainly soil and stone from excavations. Most of it comes from large infrastructure construction (e.g., railways, highways). Added to this are emissions from transportation, poor air quality and the loss of materials during construction and at the end of the life cycle through demolition and disposal in landfills.

Starting with the built environment sector, the Slovenian government has embarked on a transformative journey with the Deep Demonstration programme, adopting innovative approaches for more holistic and inclusive approach to promote the circular transition of all key industries through a national approach based on regional and local needs. The programme aims to create a transition pathway to a circular economy for five key Slovenian value chains. In addition to the built environment, the food, mobility, forest-wood and manufacturing industries are also on the agenda. This transition aims to lead to a resilient and prosperous Slovenian society in which well-being is enhanced, and greenhouse gas emissions are significantly reduced.

I think there is still a lack of awareness that we’re running out of resources. It is a simple fact and something needs to be done. Regrettably, it remains largely confined to the realm of experts and academic research institutions, which slows down the necessary transformation. This is what hinders out the transformation to be done in a quicker way. And to really influence it needs to come from the government and here the results of transformation do not appear very quickly. So you need to plant the seed and then patiently move with the transformation over years, maybe even decades. We are the world champions in strategic documents, making promises and action plans, but the crux lies in the implementation phase. I firmly advocate for tangible, concrete action. In our pursuit of a faster transformation, we’ve made the decision to participate in the Deep Demonstration programme – a move intended to plant these seeds of change.

Jasmina Karba, Undersecretary of the Ministry of Environment, Climate and Energy of the Republic of Slovenia and leader of the Deep Demonstration programme

The Deep Demonstration methodology entails analysing the system by identifying priority areas for interventions and fields for experimentation. This leads to the development of a portfolio of interconnected actions that includes key activities that are required to introduce change. The phase of activating and mobilising local stakeholders to implement those actions, which follows the creation of the portfolio, includes a learning part of collecting insights for future improvements. But how can such a methodology be implemented in a structure the size of a country?

A portfolio of interconnected actions for the built environment sector in Slovenia

In order to improve the accuracy, precision and efficiency of the designed activities, the team, piloting the portfolio composition process and dynamically putting together an integrated and holistic approach, decided to strategically design and advocate for the circular transition of five key value chains, one at a time. Each sector transformation is then addressed across five transformation pillars: policy, education, entrepreneurship, finance and capability building.

The built environment was the first sector for which a portfolio was created. Stakeholders from the business sector, academia, NGOs, government agencies, private and public bodies as well as industry experts were invited to work on the portfolio, such as SPIRIT, Slovenia Business Development Agency, Slovenian Enterprise Fund (SPS), Slovenian National Building and Civil Engineering Institute (ZAG), Institute for Innovation and Development of University of Ljubljana, Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Slovenia, InnoRenew and more. They worked together to extract learning and insights from ongoing projects within the Slovenian landscape and create a portfolio of priority initiatives also identifying gaps that need to be filled for the circular practices to advance in the value chain.

Using digital tools to expand participation

Within the frame of the priority areas of the built environment portfolio, there have been several activated measures, encompassing a range of initiatives primarily focused on promoting sustainability in the use of wood and Secondary Raw Materials (SRM). One of the key measures is to support the development of digital platforms for local SRM. This effort seeks to explore existing platforms and check the interest of companies for their use through collaboration with ZAG (creator of an SRM platform called CinderOSS), SPS/SPIRIT (the prospective facilitator ensuring widespread industry engagement), and key ministries like the Ministry of Economy, Tourism and Sports and the Ministry of Digitalisation. The measure aims to enhance circular economy practises and the dissemination of SRM within the Built Environment sector. The goal is to expand the participation of companies in circular economy initiatives, ultimately driving progress in sustainable practices and resource utilisation.

In many instances, SRMs exhibit even better performance than primary raw materials in construction products, but their introduction into the market faces challenges. There is a deficiency in both awareness and demand from investors.

Alenka Mauko Pranjić, Head of the Department of Materials at the Slovenian National Building and Civil Engineering Institute

Mauko Pranjić notes that there is indeed a market for SRMs, but in today’s context, digitalisation and education play pivotal roles in promoting their adoption. She states: “We are actively advocating for digital platforms for SRM because we find that digitalisation is a very up-to-date innovation that is gaining traction in the construction industry. We see architects and designers using digital tools. On the other hand, we recognise the synergy with the circular economy as it enhances the traceability and transparency of material flows, aspects we consider crucial in fostering confidence in construction products from SRMs.” She also highlights that there is still a lot to do on the legislative level: Its efficiency is also tested in smaller pilot projects. So this is something that should be directly included in the building code or in some other form of legislation. Another key thing would also be to increase confidence and trust, maybe with higher requirements for conformity certification of such products”.  

Getting the resources needed to set up a greener value chain

Effective green public procurement is one of the key activities of the portfolio for the built environment sector transition. Although Slovenia already has legislation requiring green public procurement, expanding efforts in this area is high on the priority list. The main issue is to improve policies for the use and acceptance of SRM and Nature Based Materials (NBM) in the construction industry, and to create a market and framework conditions for companies to invest in and benefit from NBM and SRM. The Policy Lab, which is being created along with the Deep Demonstration process, will address these activities and conduct targeted experiment in collaboration with the Ministry of Public Administration.

Support for dismantling and disassembly centres is also on the agenda for the construction sector. This action will mainly focus on supporting the relevant actors to include recycling and dismantling of building components, scaling up centres that support demolition through dismantling, and reviewing how wood waste is currently sorted to enable reuse. The portfolio also emphasises education in the areas of SRM and NBM for architects and civil engineers, synergies between wood and paper cellulose materials and the retrofit industry, BIM (Building Information Modelling) regulations, re-purpose and re-adapt infrastructure, financial viability of circular renovation, and more.

The built environment value chain portfolio is moving to the next phase of defining ownership for the specific actions identified before actually extracting learning from them and another portfolio for the food sector is currently being developed with sector stakeholders. Once the portfolios for all value chains are developed, they will all be brought together in an overarching portfolio that will set the direction for Slovenia’s transformation to a circular economy.