Sustainability Picks up Steam


October 3, 2011

Although many initiatives began in Europe, North American operators are beginning to appreciate the benefits of green business practices.

By Therese Dunphy, Editor-in-Chief

Sustainable operating practices — which have roots in the business strategies of many European construction materials companies — are making their way into the ideology and operations of their North American counterparts.

For example, Lafarge North America Inc.’s various business units have taken a cue from their global parent company, with each business unit forming a sustainable construction committee. Each committee represents all its product lines, including aggregates, ready-mix, asphalt, cement, pre-cast concrete, and gypsum within that business unit, says Ted Matson, Lafarge North America Inc.’s director of marketing for aggregates in western Canada.

“During the last two years, we came up with a marketing plan that primarily identifies risks and opportunities that are related to sustainability,” he explains. “Here in western Canada, almost all of the newly designed buildings have some sustainable construction dimension to them. There’s an increased awareness of it internally within our own organization and, at the same time, externally within the construction industry.”

One of the risks includes a negative perception related to the risk of embodied energy (from CO2) in the materials. At the same time, product lifespan and durability offer opportunities, particularly as they relate to a building industry that is increasingly seeking green construction materials. “The big issue is life-cycle cost so, as a building material, the life-cycle energy requirements from a product like concrete, with aggregates and cement in it, can be proven to be a lot better than other building materials,” he says. “That’s a point where we have an opportunity.”

Each group identifies its correlating risks and opportunities, then develops an action plan to address them by product type and customer segment. For example, the product segments now have a response to British Columbia’s Wood First initiative, which promotes wood as a more sustainable construction material. “We have identified specific actions for our specific products to counter their arguments,” Matson points out, noting advantages in terms of both durability and fire safety.

Reducing environmental impact

In addition to considering the marketing aspects, the committees are also reviewing their operating practices from a sustainability and environmental impact viewpoint. “We’re identifying a lot of current practices that need to be understood and promoted as items that help us in terms of sustainable construction,” Matson says.

For example, the committee has looked at calculations for embodied energy, which plays a significant role in LEED certification. When it comes to those calculations, transportation of aggregates — on average — produces significantly higher CO2 emissions than does the production of aggregates. “Locating our sites in proximity to the market is something we’ve always done from a cost point of view,” he says. “We’ve always thought it would lower our trucking costs, but we also need to think about it and promote it in terms of the sustainable construction. We’re trying to recognize efficiencies within our operations that we already do and communicate them in terms of sustainable construction.”

Another focus area of Lafarge’s sustainability effort targets energy savings that can be achieved during the production process. A new initiative focuses on making sure the plants don’t operate without product flow. “Every time that our plants are running, we want to make sure they are crushing or conveying material,” says Laurent Villanueva, director of marketing, Lafarge North America Inc.’s Eastern Canada Aggregates. “We want to optimize output and minimize environmental impact.”

Likewise, the company is training its mobile equipment operators to run their equipment efficiently and avoid idling during downtime or lunch breaks. “That’s behavior that we see, and we think it’s time to change it by making sure people are aware of the environmental impact,” Villanueva says.

In addition to monitoring fuel usage, the company is also trying to flatten peaks in electrical power demand to reduce the needs of the electrical grid. “If you have high peaks of electricity, it’s difficult for the electricity supplier because they have to have the capacity to meet those peaks,” he points out.

Electrical efficiencies can be achieved by understanding what creates a large draw on the system and ensuring multiple draws don’t occur at the same time. For example, more power is drawn when an equipment motor starts up than when it operates. By sequencing start-ups, the energy demand from the electrical grid is lowered. “It seems like a little thing, but if everyone does this, it can reduce the need for capacity on the grid,” Villanueva says.

Taking a big step

Reducing its environmental impact is a core belief at BoDean Co., Inc., one of North America’s most progressive aggregate producers in terms of sustainable operations. “In Northern California, our natural resources — our air, our water, and our soil — are valued treasures,” says Bill Williams, general manager of the Santa Rosa, Calif.-based company. “When people see an operator conducting in a responsible fashion, it leads to an easier effort at gaining entitlement…at least I hope so.”

BoDean Co., Inc. switched to solar power for its main office in 2007. Earlier this year, it overcame the challenge of installing panels on its steep terrain (see below) and became the first solar-powered quarry in the United States.

For decades, the company has reclaimed its sites concurrently as production in an area was completed. “Instead of waiting for the site to be mined out and then reclaimed, we reclaim in a linear fashion so that we reclaim behind it,” Williams says. “We’ve been involved in our reclamation program since the ’90s. It’s actually one of the things that we’re most proud of.”

When California’s Aggregate Resource Management Plan phased out mining along the Russian River (Sonoma County’s main gravel source) several years ago, the company investigated alternative sources, including material from San Francisco Bay. Its corrosive quality didn’t meet BoDean’s quality standards, so the company barged material from British Columbia to feed its asphalt plants. “That seemed crazy to us, so we decided to invest in our own wash plant and manufacture our own sand,” Williams says. BoDean invested more than $3 million to install a self-contained, closed-loop wash plant system at its Mark West Quarry. The system provides significant water conservation, with 99 percent of wash water being recirculated.

While quite successful, the wash plant is only one of the company’s initiatives, which include adding a thickening plant and filter press system to eliminate the need for settling ponds (see “Dry Idea,” Aggregates Manager, October 2010), as well as numerous changes to its asphalt batch plant operations. “We started looking seriously at all our processes to see if we could utilize new technologies, reduce our energy consumption, increase efficiency, and increase profitability,” Williams says.

The next step at its aggregate operations was to install photo-voltaic power at its main office building. “It was a process to sell the solar,” he notes. “It had to make financial sense. We kicked it around for a couple of years before it was installed in 2007.” As the office building’s solar project was under development, the company began to think about a seemingly crazy idea — running the quarry on solar power. Williams talked to the solar companies that were making proposals for the office building about an additional quarry project, but the idea “didn’t pencil out” at that time.

After working through the learning curve with the office building’s solar power and reviewing energy bills that continued to climb, the company later decided to move forward with its solar-power project for the quarry. A number of challenges needed to be overcome, particularly with regard to the site’s topography, which required solar panels to be mounted on a steeply graded hillside. BoDean also had to consider how it would continue to connect to the electrical grid, which is used as a backup power supply on stormy or cloudy days.

“It was a daunting task from an installation standpoint and from a logistics standpoint,” Williams says. “Many solar companies, at that time, did not have experience with solar projects of this magnitude.” The $3 million system, capable of generating 1.165 megawatts per hour, was designed to supply the net power needed for the site’s requirements. The company may re-evaluate capacity after running solar operations for a while and benchmarking its return on investment.

Between the office building and the plant, Williams estimates that the company has reduced green house gas emissions from the site by more than 1,000 tons per year. BoDean’s efforts were recognized with the Bay Area Helios Award during the Solar Leader’s Circle Awards for Sustainable Business Practices. The event, held by the local energy provider and Solar Sonoma County, honored the top commercial solar installations in the North Bay.

While accolades and recognition are appreciated, the true benefits of today’s growing green movement are three-fold: fostering pride in the business, attracting new customers, and maintaining the social license needed for future operations. “From the political arena to our neighbors, building goodwill is always a good thing,” Williams notes. AM

What About Recycling?

Like reclamation planning, recycling represents one of the construction materials industry’s early forays into sustainability. However, not all recycled material is equal, and some customers have been reluctant to use it. “If you are a risk avoider, as many people are, you prefer to use virgin material,” says Laurent Villanueva, director of marketing, Lafarge North America Inc.’s Eastern Canada Aggregates. At the same time, cost avoidance is driving a desire to reuse the material because recycling represents the lowest cost way to dispose of construction debris.

To ensure proper performance, Lafarge’s Eastern Canada Aggregates implements tight protocols for sorting, crushing, and testing material. “The perception is that it (recycled material) is an inferior product,” Villanueva says. “We’re trying to change that perception, but it takes time.”

Its efforts are being aided by supply issues in some Canadian metropolitan markets, where reserves of virgin material have been depleted and haulage costs are leading customers to rethink their stance on recycled material. In fact, Villanueva says that Lafarge saw sales of recycled concrete in Eastern Canada grow by more than 40 percent in 2010, with similar increases expected in 2011.

A key to that growth is the use of strict quality control measures. Because recycled material can come from numerous different sources, such as a ready-mix truck, washout, commercial demolition, and road removal, the quality of each can differ. “The very important thing is to understand how each material reacts,” he says. “You have to balance these materials to reach the desired performance in the end. For example, a little washout isn’t too bad, but if you add too much, you could create a slumping problem. We try to find the optimized application for recycled materials.”

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