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The PCA's Michelle Wilson says concrete is a key material as society strives toward sustainability.

You've just heard the beginning about saving the environment. “Sustainability is the key buzzword for us and you need to keep it in mind for the next 10 or 20 years and the rest of our lives using concrete,” said Michelle Wilson, manager, education and product development at the Portland Cement Association (PCA).

Wilson spoke about the future of cement, concrete, and sustainability at the Women in Concrete Luncheon and Forum at the World of Concrete in January. Educated as an engineer but working on the education side, she gives seminars at PCA, ACI, and World of Concrete. Speaking to a room full of women was a first for her.

“We need concrete to continue to develop our communities,” she said. “Our population growth is booming. We will need a lot of buildings to sustain growth. We will need more educational facilities, as well as hospitals, housing, and retail.”

The population of the U.S. will increase by about 65 million people by 2030, which will include at least 9.1 million school-age children and 34 million retirees. What does that mean? We need to keep building and we need to construct buildings that will last longer, are more energy efficient, and are higher so they have a smaller footprint. That's where sustainability comes in.

Building taller

“We are running out of room to spread out, especially in cities like Chicago,” she said. Concrete is a preferred material on multi-story buildings and it allows for a longer life cycle so the buildings do not have to be replaced as frequently.

“There's also going to be more congestion on our roads and highways with the increase in population,” Wilson said. “The best thing we can do for life cycle and construction traffic is to use a better product. The better product for life cycle is concrete.”

Not only is building with concrete a better construction method, it is also better for the environment. The issue is not going away. “It's important to consider the environment when considering any type of construction method,” she said.

Concrete is now being designed for 50- or even 100-year life spans, and when it is torn down, it is reused on other projects. Also, the cement industry plans to reduce CO2 emissions by 10% per ton by 2020 (from a baseline of 1990), a commitment the industry has made to foster sustainability. The industry is already recycling 75% of cement kiln dust (8 million tons/year).

There is no turning back from using concrete. Our country needs and requires sustainable products. Concrete in its many forms and uses and with its many benefits is the answer to sustainability, Wilson said.

Visit the Women in Concrete page for more columns, information on our LinkedIn group, and additional resources.