Madaster: “Waste is material without an identity”
The Earth is a closed system: Nothing comes in and nothing goes out. Everything we have is a limited edition. Yet our economic system sees resources as infinite, and so treats certain material as waste. Pablo van den Bosch, who we spoke to for our podcast series on the circular economy, believes that “waste is material without an identity.” His company Madaster works to give materials an identity, assign them value, and help shift the economy from linear to circular.
Madaster is an online register for the real estate and construction sectors to upload information about products and materials used in the built environment. The idea is that in order to eliminate waste, you need to have a detailed record of what products and materials are used, and how. By documenting materials in this way, they can be used again and again, rather than being thrown away after one use.
For new buildings, developers can upload building information models (like digital 3D architect drawings) to Madaster. The platform then extracts data from the documents to identify each material and product used in the build. Then, when the property is purchased, the new owner receives a Madaster file that includes a list of all the materials and products, as well as the drawings. If the owner makes any adjustments to the building, for example by converting a room or repainting, the Madaster file can be updated. Similarly, if there are faults or performance issues with an element of the building, the owner is more empowered to report problems, request changes, and hold the developer to account. The developer, in turn, can use the data to improve processes and overall building quality.
The platform also serves owners of buildings at the demolition stage. For example, when a large hospital in the Netherlands was due to be demolished, instead of approaching demolishers individually, the owners registered the building on Madaster, sent it out to a group of demolishers and asked, ‘How can you maximise the value of all the products that come out of the demolition process?’ Because the information was available digitally, every demolisher received the same information and could outline how they would sell the materials. This led to a significant increase in revenue for the owner, as they could get much more value from their ‘waste’ products.
Although the technology behind the platform was not easy to create, for Pablo the real challenge is convincing people to take an interest in the ongoing value of products and materials used in the built environment. Luckily, Pablo loves a puzzle. “More and more people and organisations are becoming aware of the importance [of a circular approach],” he says. “Sometimes it’s because they care about our planet and future generations. Sometimes they care about health. And some just care about money.” For each approach, Madaster can make a compelling case.
The company drew inspiration from platform economy giants like Uber and Airbnb, gathering vast amounts of data through individual user uploads. The approach also helps reframe what it means to own a product: When we can track a product’s lifecycle and understand its potential for future reuse, it’s easier to think about it as something we’re using temporarily. “We wanted to facilitate that point in the economy where you move from one owner to the other,” explains Pablo. “And we want to facilitate that with data, because data is something that keeps our economy running.”
Instead of owning all that data, Madaster set up an independent nonprofit foundation to oversee its activities and ensure it operates to stimulate the transition to a circular economy. “We want to be profitable enough to ensure continuity, but not abuse the position to make more profits. We don't want to be profit-driven, but impact-driven.”
According to Pablo, it will take more than just financial benefits for businesses to switch to a circular model, because it’s a different way of thinking. The linear concept of one-time ownership to eternal waste is deeply ingrained in our systems and approaches. And while he concedes that materials cannot literally be reused eternally, he sees value in simplifying the message to make his point.
“I just cannot imagine not taking the end use situation into account.” He concludes. “Humankind’s existence on this planet is not linear, and the resources we have are here forever. So why have we created agreements between people (which we call an economy) that takes things as linear?”