Sustainable Practices All Concrete Producers Should Start With

Within the concrete world, we hear a lot these days about sustainability. Maybe at times a bit too much, as it can become confusing to concrete producers who may not be sure how it applies to them or where to start. And, the many buzzwords associated with sustainability can further mystify a movement that isn’t going to go away or die out as the next fad, but one instead which is going to form the foundation for how all successful businesses are going to operate tomorrow and into the future. In other words, sustainability and sustainable practices are the future for concrete producers.

The world of sustainability is also going to provide many opportunities for concrete producers. Things like LEED and other green building standards, environmental product declarations (EPDs), sustainable supply chain management, and more will open new doors to progressive concrete producers, who will be able to capitalize in new ways and in new markets beyond the present.

Much of the world of sustainability is presently out of the direct control of concrete producers. For example, although the concrete industry can and has been very successful at ensuring that concrete receives its just due in green building certification programs (like LEED) and codes, this tends to be beyond the scope of most individual concrete producers (although collective participation in the sustainability movement through groups like National Ready Mixed Concrete Association, National Precast Concrete Association and Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute and your state concrete association is critical).But short of sitting on the sidelines watching the world of sustainability develop, what sorts of things can concrete producers begin implementing on their own in order to begin the development of a program of sustainable practices as well as establishing a groundwork for future sustainability opportunities? In this article, we’ll take a look at some relatively easy practices that all concrete producers can start in order to move in this direction.

But first, it is important to remember that sustainability isn’t just about your concrete products, or about your operational practices at your plant (nor is it solely about environmental regulatory compliance). There’s a much larger world out there dealing with sustainability, and true sustainability within your company should include at least a strong consideration of all areas of sustainability, commonly referred to as the “triple bottom line” of planet (environment), people (social aspects), and profit (the economic benefit provided by your product and operations).

While we won’t go much into the social or economic sides of sustainability, they must be considered for a full view of corporate sustainability. Social aspects would include concepts such as: ethical corporate operations, fair labor practices, the provision and use of employee health and safety practices, the protection of human rights (such as throughout your supply chain), community impacts (such as local hiring practices and community support), discrimination policies, and much more. Economic considerations would include concepts such as: employee compensation practices, economic support of your communities, taxes paid, and yes, profitability to the corporation, employees and stockholders, and all other stakeholders in your company’s success.

But typically, when we consider sustainable practices in the concrete industry, we need to focus on plant and company operational practices—those related to how you operate your plant and produce your product. Very often, these are tied to environmental impact; however, these practices must also be considered in terms of raw material conservation, energy use, waste reduction, and carbon and water footprint reduction. In other words, beyond how concrete producers typically view their operations!

Some areas to be considered in terms of sustainable practices at a concrete plant might include the following:
Develop a Champion. A sustainability program needs a leader, as well as a cheerleader. Someone knowledgeable, interested and motivated with regards to sustainability, and who is willing to share their enthusiasm with others within the organization. Who is your Sustainability Manager, Vice President of Sustainability and Environment, or just your person in charge of your program of sustainable practices? Who in your organization is reading the articles (like this one), participating in sustainability committees, searching for good information online, and then communicating this great stuff throughout the company? Without a leader, you really can’t have much of a program.

Materials Use. The largest component of the carbon footprint of concrete still comes from portland cement. While normally an indispensable part of your mix design, start looking around at other materials that might give you the ability to continue to make a high-quality product with the same properties while lowering the carbon footprint. Seek and discuss alternatives, and be progressive in those mix designs where possible. This should also go for all other materials you use for concrete, including aggregates, admixtures, and cement substitutes. In all cases, make sustainability part of the discussion. Ask for, and evaluate, some form of environmental declaration for all products you buy and use (and if they’re not available, seek alternatives or ask when they will be available).

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Everything you can at your concrete plant! Remember, you are not in the waste business, don’t generate any waste materials (or as few as possible). Whatever can be reduced, do so. A clear example would be process water at a concrete plant: Is it being contained and recycled, or allowed to run off (with appropriate permits hopefully) into water bodies? Do what you can to reduce the amount of water used in your product, and in your process (in part, your water footprint). How about returned concrete or excess concrete material? Are you taking steps to minimize it, and to recycle all you produce? Generally, there are ample opportunities in these areas at most concrete plants for improvement.
Energy Use. This can be an easy place to start. A good place to begin is with an energy audit from an industry or energy professional. What can be done to reduce your energy use, and in turn the embodied energy that goes into your concrete product? And bear in mind that this might not just involve your plant; for example, where do you get your energy from? What is the source of that energy, and are alternative greener energy credits available? Usually, there is a lot of room for improvement in energy use, which very often also translates into energy savings and in turn cost savings. One area that sustainability impacts the bottom line!

Supply Chain. Your suppliers are part of your business. What they do becomes part of your operation and your product. Are your suppliers behaving in a sustainable manner? How do you know, have you asked or evaluated their sustainability program? Do their work practices and corporate behavior match your goals? If not, you may wish to consider taking your business elsewhere.

Environmental Compliance. Not typically identified as a component of sustainability, but your sustainable practices program will come crashing down with the first major U.S. Environmental Protection Agency violation you receive; your credibility will be gone. Environmental compliance can be thought of as one of the components of the foundation of a sustainability program. If you’re not sure if you’ve got all your bases covered, seek professional help.

Certifications. If a plant sustainability certification program is available, look into it! For example, NRMCA has a Sustainable Plant certification program that includes benchmarking tools and the identification of a lot of areas of sustainable practices for concrete producers to consider—and to consider improvement within!

Benchmarking. Finally, concrete producers would do well to begin a process to see how they measure up with regards to sustainability. How are you doing with some of the practices outlined, and how do you compare with industry benchmarks? Evaluations of your carbon footprint, water use, embodied energy use, waste generation and more can be very enlightening. There are numerous tools available with which to see how you measure up. Without some form of benchmarking, you’ll never know if you’re doing well, or if you have room to improve.

And finally, the best tip for developing a sustainable practices program—pay attention and keep listening! A lot is going on today, and more will be developing in the future. Environmental product declarations (EPDs), health product declarations (HPDs), sustainability reporting, and much more; there are a lot of new developments seemingly popping up every day. Without some means to stay up with these latest developments, the sustainability movement could pass you by without your even noticing. But stay on top of these developments, and begin the development of a sustainable practices program within your concrete company, and the opportunities presented by sustainability will be yours to obtain.