Concrete producers have heard the buzzwords—green, sustainable, eco-friendly —for years now. But most would rather hear about how these concepts actually translate to their everyday operations. Does “going green” mean making different buying decisions, changing production processes, or remaking the company's image?
Concrete producers and contractors are attempting to determine what sustainability means for their businesses and for the industry, Michael Lepech said during his presentation, “Current Sustainability Trends: Measurement, Management, & Messaging,” at the GreenSite Luncheon & Forum at World of Concrete.
Lepech, an assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a Fellow at the Center for Sustainable Development and Global Competitiveness at Stanford University, approached the topic as an engineer and researcher with experience in designing and building highways, bridges, and residential high-rises.
Concrete producers are wrapping their arms around sustainability by measuring environmental impacts, managing factors within their control, and publicizing their efforts.
One of the most comprehensive environmental measurements is a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). The life cycle of concrete includes all of the raw materials that go into it and the energy to produce them, the manufacturing process, and the resulting output, including the finished product and any waste or pollutants.
“When you can measure environmental impacts, you can make better business decisions,” said Lepech. He recommended using guidelines such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards 14040-14043 on environmental management. These voluntary standards can help producers conduct a process-based LCA, including defining goals, analyzing inventory, assessing environmental impact, and interpreting the results.
Citing the popular business mantra, “what gets measured, gets managed,” Lepech advised managing as many environmental factors as possible. This can mean looking at the supply chain, including processes used to mine or produce raw materials, environmental impact of admixture providers, and the distance materials travel to the plant. Producers should review processes at their own plants and determine ways to conserve energy and reduce emissions.
Mix design durability
Producers can also improve mix designs to maximize concrete's sustainable qualities such as durability. Lepech recommended the Life-365 software, which estimates the service life and life-cycle costs of alternative concrete mix designs.
Life-365 gives research-based estimates of the effects of concrete design, chloride exposure, environmental temperature, concrete mixes and barriers, and steel types on steel-reinforced concrete structures. It was developed through a partnership of ACI, the Slag Cement Association, the Concrete Corrosion Inhibitors Association, NRMCA, and the Silica Fume Association.
Once producers measure and manage as many factors as possible, they have hard data to share with customers and business partners about the environmental impact of their products. Lepech advised producers to document and market this information, using guidelines such as ISO Standard 14020 for environmental labels and declarations.
Although government regulation and standards are shaping environmental regulations that affect the concrete industry, Lepech argued that businesses such as concrete producers, have the most at stake. “Politicians are only in office for a couple of years,” he said. “But businesses are the ones with a long-term investment in sustainability.”
By conducting and supporting research efforts, documenting results, and establishing best practices, producers not only establish their own sustainability; they can influence future regulations.
Check out the resources mentioned by Dr. Michael Lepech at the following Web sites.