These are far from normal operating times. Across the United States – and around the world – demand for concrete has dropped, with ready mix plants operating at partial capacity or closed entirely and projects on hold. While industry bodies lobby governments for permission to resume full operations, producers should take this time to assess their profitability in a post-COVID world.
The coronavirus-inflicted lockdown has the potential to change the way the world thinks about carbon emissions forever. We are on track for the largest drop in anthropogenic carbon emissions (emissions created by human activity) since World War II. In highly polluted places like India, the Himalayas have been visible more than 160 kilometers away – for the first time in almost 30 years. Carbon output is likely to remain high on the agenda in the years to come.
Few concrete producers will be making new investments right now. However, this is an ideal moment to plan the fastest recovery possible when the economy resumes. Changes and improvements made during this time will also ensure your operations are a step ahead of the competition when projects resume.
More sustainable concrete can contribute to greater economic value for your business: protecting profit margins, reducing cement usage, and providing a new edge to compete for projects in the growing green building market.
By adopting the latest developments in sustainable materials, processes, and technologies, concrete producers can play a crucial role in a more sustainable future – all while protecting, and even enhancing the bottom line.
Material and process optimization
The road ahead is uncertain but, based on previous downturns, governments may turn in part to infrastructure projects to kickstart their economies. And faced with growing pressure to act against climate change, many are predicting that an infrastructure boom will be at the behest of “[advancing] the clean energy transition”
If this is the case, producers will be faced with two imperatives to boost profitability: reduce concrete production costs of current output, and be ready and prepared with solutions that meet the environmental criteria in order to win these ‘green projects’.
As the most expensive and environmentally impactful ingredient in concrete, cement reduction has significant economic and sustainability benefits. Producers should look to optimize their mix designs with Supplementary Cementitious Materials (SCMs) such as fly ash and slag, and recycled concrete wherever possible.
Carbon dioxide (CO₂) utilization technologies offer another opportunity to boost sustainability alongside profitability. Using CO₂ sourced from local industrial emitters, technologies like CarbonCure operate on a lease model with no upfront capital costs.
CO₂ is precisely injected into concrete mixes, where it chemically converts into solid calcium carbonate that is permanently embedded within the concrete. Compressive strength is maintained even while the cement content in the mix is reduced, minimizing the overall carbon footprint and global warming potential (GWP) of the concrete.
Green building gathering pace
Concrete producers that optimize materials and processes will find an increasing number of customers in both the public and private sectors. In 2019, the US Conference of Mayors adopted a resolution “Urging All Cities to Consider Using Carbon Dioxide Mineralized Concrete for Future City Building and Infrastructure Projects Utilizing Concrete” and this guidance applies to 1,400 US cities.
In the private sector, companies like Microsoft, McDonald’s, and LinkedIn are leading the way. Microsoft levies a tax on its teams for their operational carbon emissions, with the money “paid into a sustainability fund that is used to achieve carbon neutrality via efficiency, renewable energy, and offsets”.
For McDonald’s, sustainability in the construction of their buildings has become a priority. Ozinga Ready Mix worked with Ross Barney Architects to supply 19,000 square feet of CarbonCure concrete to the new McDonald’s flagship restaurant in Chicago, IL., saving 30,000 pounds of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere.
In California, LinkedIn is working with Central Concrete to incorporate environmentally-friendly technologies into a new 245,000-square-foot campus building. The lead on the project said that, while the company has long taken sustainability seriously, it now wanted it to be "part of our actual building foundation."
As more organizations commit to investing in sustainable building materials, concrete producers can enhance their profitability by adopting leading-edge technologies like SCMs, recycled concrete, and CO₂ utilization solutions.
Choosing partners for long-term profitability
Introducing and validating new technologies undoubtedly comes at a cost, with producers needing to invest time and effort into testing new mixes. Choosing to work with partners that are focused on maximizing your success is one way to ensure the outcomes far outweigh the initial outlay.
Collaborating with specialists at CarbonCure, producers like Irving Materials Inc. have, and continue to successfully roll out the CarbonCure Technology across their network of plants – but the support doesn’t end at implementation.
The CarbonCure team provides ongoing training, research, and marketing materials to give producer partners the knowledge and data points they need to stand behind the strength and performance of their concrete. The team can also help to facilitate introductions with specifiers, drawing on a strong network within the construction community.
As the demand for environmentally-friendly building materials grows, the ongoing support of sustainability partners will become a prerequisite for long-term profitability.
Taking action today
Sustainability and profitability now go hand-in-hand in the concrete industry. Solutions that reduce cement in mixes can protect profit margins and becoming a green producer opens up a portfolio of low-carbon projects that are growing in volume – studies predict CO₂ utilization will become a $400 billion global industry by the year 2030.
Concrete producers are on the cusp of an exciting new opportunity to drive greater economic value through sustainable means. The actions and preparations you make today will determine what comes your way tomorrow.
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