Circular Economy in the Building Sector: Investigating Awareness, Attitudes, Barriers, and Enablers through a Case Study in Saudi Arabia
To the best of the authors’ knowledge, this study represents the first of its kind in the country that focuses on implementing the concept of CE in the context of the building sector. The primary objective of this study is to bridge the existing gap in the literature by investigating and comprehensively analysing the current state of CE awareness, implementation, perceptions, challenges, and enablers for greater adoption within the Saudi Arabian building sector. This research aims to contribute to the limited body of knowledge on CE in Saudi Arabia, addressing the lack of studies on the CE paradigm within the specific context of the Saudi building industry. The following four research questions are established for this study:
What is the current level of awareness of CE principles within the Saudi Arabian building sector?
How do different stakeholders in the building sector perceive CE concepts?
What are the main challenges faced by stakeholders in adopting CE practices in the building sector in Saudi Arabia?
What factors contribute to the successful adoption and integration of CE practices in the building sector in Saudi Arabia?
3.2. Demographic Details
3.2.1. Years of Experience in the Building Sector
3.2.2. Organisation Type
3.3. Circular Economy Awareness, Practice, and Future Implementation
3.3.1. Level of Awareness
The level of awareness of the concept of CE plays a crucial role in understanding the knowledge gap experienced by stakeholders within the building sector. Awareness of CE principles among stakeholders is also essential for accelerating its adoption, as it empowers individuals to make informed decisions in this regard.
It was therefore apparent that a significant majority of the participants (73%) currently lack the knowledge to implement CE principles effectively, indicating the need for greater education and research on the subject, CE legislation, and campaigns to raise awareness on the subject, which can facilitate the adoption of CE practices among stakeholders in Saudi Arabia.
3.3.2. Level of Practice
Organisations that always integrate CE principles can be seen as industry leaders in the transition towards circularity within the building sector. As the findings of this study have demonstrated that there is currently little engagement with CE practices in the building sector in Saudi Arabia, there is a need to promote an increased awareness of the subject, and to encourage its adoption.
3.3.3. Future Implementation
In addition, the participants were asked to share their views of the following statement: ”Your organisation should integrate more circular economy principles into future construction projects”.
3.4. Barriers Relative Importance Index Analysis
This study employed the relative importance index (RII) to rank each of the questions posed in the questionnaire according to their importance regarding the perceived barriers to implementing CE practices in the building sector. Understanding these barriers from a stakeholder’s perspective is crucial for developing practical solutions to overcome them. To assess the significance of these barriers, the participants were asked to rate them using a five-point Likert scale.
Barriers’ Relative Importance Index Analysis per Stakeholder
For the respondents who were contractors, the five barriers that ranked highest were, in order, (T4) Absence of certification, quality assurance, standardisation of reused materials; (E4) Unclear financial case; and (E1) Lack of market mechanisms for recovery.
Meanwhile, the consultants ranked (E5) High upfront cost as the most significant barrier, followed by (A5) Lack of adequate information/data about reused materials’ availability and (S1) Negative perception of circular practices. The barriers ranked highest by the respondents who had primarily worked in client organisations were, in order, (E1) Lack of market mechanisms for recovery, followed by (A3) Fragment supply chain and (A5) Lack of adequate information/data about reused materials availability. Finally, those who had primarily been associated with academia ranked (T3) Lack of circular economy-specific legislation highest, followed by (T4) Absence of certification, quality assurance, standardisation of reused materials, and last (S1) Negative perception of circular practices.
3.5. Correlation Test of the Barriers
Most of the barriers were associated positively with one another. (A2) Lack of clear vison for CE and (A3) Fragment supply chain had a statistically significant strong positive connection (rs = 0.540), and this relationship was statistically significant at a very high level of significance (p < 0.01). A clear vision for CE initiatives often involves strategic planning and coordination throughout the supply chain. The positive correlation indicates that a lack of a clear vision may contribute to a fragmented supply chain. Without a cohesive and shared vision for circular practices, it becomes challenging to align and integrate different elements of the supply chain effectively.
The correlation observed between (T3) Lack of circular economy-specific legislation and (T4) Absence of certification, quality assurance, standardization, and grading systems for salvaged materials exhibited a strong positive correlation with a coefficient (rs = 0.495, p < 0.01), indicating a strong positive relationship. Legislation provides the foundation, while certification and quality assurance systems ensure adherence to the principles outlined in the legislation. Without a specific legal framework guiding CE practices, there may be challenges in establishing and enforcing certification, quality assurance, and standardisation mechanisms for salvaged materials.
The barriers (E1) Lack of market mechanisms for recovery and (E3) Mismatch between supply and demand of reused materials were strongly correlated (rs = 0.458, p < 0.01). The absence of market mechanisms for recovery can contribute to a situation where the supply and demand of reused materials are not effectively balanced. Without efficient recovery mechanisms, the supply of reused materials may not align with the market demand, leading to a mismatch.
The lack of interest in CE (S2) was significantly and strongly positively correlated with (S1) Negative perception of circular practices (rs = 0.657, p < 0.01). Concerns among stakeholders regarding the quality and safety of reclaimed materials can lead to a general disinterest to adopt circular practices. Additionally, a lack of awareness about the advantages and suitability of circular design contributes to this negative perception, resulting in a lack of interest in adopting CE.
3.6. Enablers’ Relative Importance Index
In all, two of the enablers, namely, the establishment of more materials storage and recycling facilities and the use of BIM, were ranked as being at the highest level of importance, while the remaining 11 enablers had a high–medium importance level, clearly demonstrating the importance of all the enablers to the implementation of CE.
Enablers Relative Importance Index Analysis per Stakeholder
For respondents who are contractors, the five highest-ranking enablers are “More materials yards and recycling facilities”, followed by, both with the same ranking, Standardization and Assurance Certification for Reused Materials”, and “Development of Reused Materials Market”, followed by three enablers with the same ranking; “CE-Supportive Policy”, “Design Guidelines for Circular Buildings”, and “Financial incentives”. On the other hand, the consultants ranked “More materials yards and recycling facilities” as the highest enabler, followed by “Use of BIM”. Three enablers had the same ranking, which were “Collaboration and Stakeholder Engagement”, “Financial Incentives”, and “CE-Supportive Policy”.
The enabler that received the highest ranking among the respondents who have primarily worked in client organisations was “More materials yards and recycling facilities”, followed by “Technology and innovation for circular building tools”. Three enablers have the same ranking: “Circular Business Models”, “Use of BIM”, and “Development of Reused Materials Market”, whereas, for respondents who have been primarily associated with academia in their career, the highest-ranking enablers are “More materials yards and recycling facilities”, followed by “Circular Business Models” and “Collaboration and Stakeholder Engagement”. Both the enablers “Use of BIM” and “CE-Supportive Policy” have the same ranking.
4.1. Awareness and Attitudes
The built environment’s rising interest in CE necessitates the exploration of practical implementation mechanisms. The building sector plays a crucial role in achieving CE objectives. The notable finding that over 70% of stakeholders in the building sector in Saudi Arabia lack awareness of CE can be attributed to several factors. Cultural considerations can significantly impact attitudes and priorities within the building sector. If there exists a cultural resistance to change or a prevailing emphasis on traditional practices over sustainable approaches, stakeholders may be less motivated to prioritize CE initiatives. Stakeholders might be resistant to change if they are unfamiliar with the benefits and feasibility of adopting CE practices. This resistance is compounded by negative perceptions surrounding the quality and safety of reused materials and circular practices, which can hinder their acceptance. If there is a societal bias against adopting circular practices in construction industry, stakeholders may be reluctant to incorporate them into projects. Moreover, the absence of CE-specific regulation for adopting CE practices contributes to the prevailing lack of awareness among the stakeholders. Without requirements promoting CE practices, stakeholders may not perceive a compelling need to familiarise themselves with such principles. The regulatory framework is critical as it influences the establishment of industry standards that promote CE in construction and design, which will result in increasing knowledge and awareness of CE principles.
Despite the growing interest in the CE model, several obstacles still hinder the full transition of the building sector towards a CE paradigm. As reported by the study participants, the five most notable challenges are related to the absence of certification and standardisation of reused material, a lack of market mechanisms for recovery, a negative perception of circular practices, supply chain fragmentation, and budget and upfront costs.
Material standardisation, classification, and certification are pivotal for creating uniform frameworks and guidelines that support circular practices. Stakeholders may express concern about the lack of established standards and certifications for reused materials. The absence of a clear framework for certifying the quality and safety of reclaimed materials can create uncertainty and hinder their widespread acceptance in construction projects. In addition, the lack of certification contributes to uncertainty regarding the performance and longevity of reclaimed materials. This uncertainty can discourage stakeholders from choosing these materials, particularly for projects where durability and performance are critical considerations.
Clients’ ranking of a lack of market for recovered materials can be influenced by the economic viability of construction projects. The lack of established market mechanisms for the recovery of materials may raise concerns about the cost-effectiveness of circular practices. Clients may worry about potential additional costs associated with the recovery and reuse of materials without clear market mechanisms for such materials. Consultants ranked the high upfront cost associated with circular practices as a top barrier, recognizing the challenges posed by client’s defined budgets for construction projects. Consultants recognise that higher upfront costs can strain the financial allocation by the client. They may perceive that a client is resistant to allocating additional funds for CE, especially if there is an immediate impact on upfront costs. The focus on adhering to client budgets can influence consultants’ perspectives on this barrier.
The analysis conducted in this study reveals that enabler strategies, including the need for more materials storage and recycling facilities, the use of BIM, the development of technology and innovation for circular building tools, CE- supportive policy, and standardisation and assurance certification for reused materials, emerged as the top five enablers to the wider adoption of CE.
Stakeholders in Saudi Arabia may see the need for more materials storage and recycling facilities as a strategic step to overcome barriers associated with the adoption of CE principles. Adequate materials storage and recycling facilities enable better management of resources, as well-designed storage and recycling facilities support the circular flow of materials. This means that materials can be collected, processed, and reintroduced into the construction cycle, aligning with the principles of a CE. Furthermore, the availability of storage and recycling facilities plays a significant role in fostering the growth of a robust market for reused and recycled construction materials. This, in turn, stimulates increased participation from new markets and attracts investments in circular practices.
The presence of CE-supportive policies is a crucial enabler for the wider adoption of CE practices. Legislation oriented towards CE can establish standards that cover building design, construction, and operation. These standards may mandate the utilization of reused or recycled materials, emphasise energy efficiency, promote waste reduction strategies, and advocate for the integration of circular principles throughout building practices. Such policies provide a structured framework, guidelines, regulations, and incentives that promote the overall transition toward circular business models. Furthermore, policies help mitigate the risks associated with the transition to circular practices by providing guidelines and support. Therefore, stakeholders are more likely to embrace circularity when they have a clear understanding of regulatory expectations.
The concerns about the quality and performance of reclaimed materials in building construction are legitimate, and addressing these concerns is essential for the wider adoption of such materials. Recognized standards and certifications play a crucial role in building trust among stakeholders and ensuring the quality, safety, and durability of reclaimed materials. This helps in meeting specific performance criteria and ensures that the materials are suitable for their intended applications, as stakeholders need assurance that the materials will perform as expected over time. In addition, certifications of reclaimed materials can enhance market acceptance, as stakeholders are more likely to use these materials if they are assured of their quality and compliance with established standards.
As the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia strives for economic diversity and environmental sustainability, embracing CE strategies in the building sector emerges as a critical pathway. This research shares the first findings of the awareness, attitudes, and implementation level of CE among the stakeholders of the built environment in Saudi Arabia. Additionally, it examined the primary obstacles to implementing circular strategies in building construction projects, along with the factors that facilitate a transition to the CE model. This study employed a quantitative method through an online survey with a total of 139 respondents from various stakeholder groups across major provinces, including Riyadh, Makkah, and the Eastern provinces, which are representative of significant construction projects in the country. This study utilised the relative importance index (RII) to rank barriers and enablers, conducted a reliability analysis using Cronbach’s alpha, and employed a Spearman’s correlation test to analyse the strength and direction of associations concerning the implementation of CE among various identified barriers.
This study’s findings reveal a significant lack of awareness of CE among the stakeholders, as the majority of participants (70%) express unfamiliarity with CE principles. Furthermore, the results indicate a low implementation rate of CE principles in building construction projects, as only 19% of participants believe their organisations consistently or frequently incorporate CE practices in such projects. However, the participants showed a positive attitude toward implementing CE as 85% of the participants believe their organisation should adopt CE principles in future construction projects. This strong endorsement shows a willingness among the participants to embrace and integrate circular practices within their organisational frameworks.
This study ranked 25 barriers to the adoption of CE in the building sector. The analysis revealed that the primary challenges in adopting CE are the “Absence of certification, quality assurance, and standardization for reused materials”; “Lack of market mechanisms for recovery”; “Negative perception of circular practices”; “Fragmented supply chain”; and “High upfront costs”. Conversely, this study ranks a set of crucial enablers that can contribute to the current situation and facilitate the transition towards more circular buildings. According to the participants, the top five enablers are “More materials storage and recycling facilities”; “Use of Building Information Modelling (BIM)”; “Technology and innovation for circular building tools”; “CE-Supportive Policy”; and “Standardisation and Assurance Certification for Reused Materials”.
In order to promote the adoption of CE practices and raise awareness among the stakeholders, this study suggests two key measures: the implementation of CE-supportive policies and legislation that involve creating a regulatory framework promoting sustainable resource use, recycling, and responsible waste management; and the provision of financial incentives such as tax reductions for circular practices.
The study’s findings provide valuable insights into the current state of CE in the building sector in Saudi Arabia, empowering stakeholders to develop more effective strategies for successful CE adoption. These research outcomes play a crucial role in shaping pathways toward a more circular built environment. However, it is crucial to acknowledge this study’s limitations, as it lacks a qualitative method for validating survey results through the perspectives of CE experts. Additionally, this study is limited to surveying stakeholders in three specific provinces of Saudi Arabia. While these provinces provide valuable insights into the perceptions and challenges related to CE adoption in the construction industry, it is essential to acknowledge that the findings may not fully represent the entire industry. Future research should incorporate expert opinions and discussions to contribute to a deeper understanding and advancement of CE practices. Moreover, a more comprehensive understanding might require the inclusion of stakeholders from a broader geographic scope, encompassing all regions of Saudi Arabia.
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