I was touring a new commercial building a few months ago and was listening to the guide talk about the new features. She then described—or tried to describe—how the concrete contributed to the building's sustainability. The tour guide talked about how the concrete had a certain industrial waste product in it, but she couldn't think of what it was and of the details.

I stayed mum because I wanted to see if she would come up with the particulars on her own. She couldn't, so I finally asked, “Do you mean fly ash?”

“Yes, that's it,” she said in relief. But she followed this with more silence, so I added that fly ash is a byproduct of coal-powered electric power plants which replaces some of the cement in the concrete. I had done my good deed for the day. Not only did I help the guide with her tour, but I got a plug in for the concrete industry and I promoted sustainability.

I've been thinking about that morning as I've pondered the results of a question we asked on our website recently: “How do you view the current state of the sustainability movement in the construction/concrete industry?” The results surprised me: 57% said it was “losing momentum,” 24% said it was “gaining momentum,” and 19% said it had “hit a plateau.”

This also surprises Lionel Lemay, senior vice president, sustainable development, at NRMCA. “From where I sit, it's almost steamrolling out of control,” he told me. Lemay rattled off some of the sustainability initiatives: the International Green Construction Code, LEED 2012, Architecture 2030, Greenroads, and every state has its own green highways initiative. Undoubtedly, there are others. “It's almost overwhelming to the point where you can't keep up,” he adds.

Possible explanations

I believe there are two reasons why some feel sustainability has “lost momentum.”

Producers act as environmental stewards more than they might realize. Fly ash is routinely used as a cement substitute, and producers manage their washout water on every load. “It has become everyday business.” says Lemay. “It's just something that they do, so it's no longer something unusual. The movement is no longer a movement.”

Brian Lutey, vice president, green building, at Chicago-based Ozinga Ready Mix Concrete Inc., agrees. “Just about everything we do at a concrete plant is sustainable,” he says. “Most of us are zero-waste. We have to do a better job of educating ourselves that what we do is green and then getting the word out to others and getting credit for it.”

David Shepherd, director of sustainable development at the Portland Cement Association, notes that 71% of readers responding to another questionon our website said their company uses GPS to assist in deliveries. “Those kinds of things impact fuel efficiency,” he says. “This knocks off part of the carbon footprint with every truck that goes out.”

Finally, a producer can practice sustainability, but it's all for naught if he closes his doors. “In more rural markets, they may be going away from it because they're trying to survive,” Lutey says.