Recycled products reincarnate as profits

Everywhere I look, recycling activity is accelerating. How is this affecting construction?— C.N.D., product planner

To make a point about a competitor’s product, a sales rep once told me, “Fresh, clean oats are one thing. But oats that have already been through the horse are something entirely different.”

In today’s ecologically aware market, however, that sales pitch could easily be reversed. A product’s recycled content or recyclability has become a marketable feature. This market change is fertile soil for those who know how to cultivate it.

While public concern about the environment is high, the real impetus for recycling comes from economic and regulatory forces affecting solid-waste disposal. Many existing landfills are reaching capacity, and new sites entail extra costs for hauling waste and for environmental protection.

Construction waste and demolition debris may account for as much as 25% of solid waste generated in the United States. Some communities have placed severe restrictions on accepting such materials, and landfill operators are raising their dumping fees.

Other economic incentives for recycling are being created. In California, government agencies are encouraged to give a bid preference to products with recycled content, despite the higher cost. A county might accept a bid for pavement made with recycled asphalt or concrete, paying more than it would for all new material.

In addition, the state requires that various products contain a minimum recycled content. Glass fiber insulation, for instance, must be manufactured with a specified percentage of recycled glass.

Product considerations
Manufacturers should take a fresh look at their products to identify ways to benefit from these developments. Begin by exploring cost- effective methods of incorporating recycled materials into your products.

Many products have always had recycled content. Steel, for example, is produced with scrap iron. Relative newcomers to the scene include building panels from recycled newsprint, carpets from recycled soda bottles, plastic roof shingles from obsolete computer housings, and an innovative counter top material made with crushed glass, shredded plastic, and other recycled materials.

How can you reduce the packaging and construction waste associated with your product? Several manufacturers of concrete admixtures reduce jobsite waste by shipping their products in bags that dissolve when thrown into a concrete mixer. Some products have been reformulated with a longer pot life so any portion not used can be saved. Other products can be pre-cut or sized to minimize cutting and scrap in the field.

In order to recover more recyclable material, demolition is moving away from the wrecking ball and bulldozer and becoming a dismantling process. How can your products be made easier to dismantle? If they contain hazardous materials, such as the radioactive material in many smoke detectors or the mercury in fluorescent lamps, you may need to set up your own resource recovery operation.

Companies that make relocatable partitions and loose-laid roofing report an increasing interest in their products because they can be salvaged for reuse. This, in turn, creates an aftermarket for reconditioning and redistributing materials.

As demolition costs increase, we may see trends toward building for longer-term durability and remodeling to extend the lives of existing buildings. In the future, builders may even have to include demolition and disposal plans as part of their environmental impact statements for proposed buildings.

In anticipation of this development, try to foster a cradle-to-grave understanding of your product. One product that would rate highly in this regard is autoclaved cellular concrete (ACC) panels, widely used in Europe and Asia. A recycled waste product, fly ash, is one of ACC’s major constituents. Scrap produced during manufacturing, on the jobsite, or at demolition can be put back into the manufacturing process or used in other industrial applications. In addition, the durable panels can be removed from one structure for use in another.

Marketing issues
Recycling can provide a new competitive edge for your company. Consider the steel industry, which suffered from its association with strip mines and smoke-belching mills. Now, steel is characterized as the ecologically appropriate, recycled alternative to the destruction of old-growth forests.

If your product has a significant recycled content, consider pointing this out in your marketing communications. Be prepared to demonstrate, however, that the recycled materials are subject to quality assurance procedures and are not detrimental to your product.

If, on the other hand, your products contain virgin materials, you must decide how important that is to your marketing message. Should you simply remove politically incorrect words? Or have you worked at differentiating your product by claiming it was stronger and more resilient because it was unadulterated? If so, you may not want to cloud the message by calling attention to any recycled content. Did you spend years getting phrases like “extrusions shall be fabricated from prime aluminum” written into your customers’ specifications? It will take just as long to get those clauses removed.

Most importantly, find out how your customers feel about recycling and your product. Are architects prepared to back up talk about “sustainable architecture” with meaningful specifications? How much will contractors spend to reduce waste at their jobsites?

As new markets and technologies for recycling mature, materials we now consider by-products will cease to be seen as waste. After all, asphalt was the waste material of petroleum distillation until someone spread it on a leaky roof. And sawdust was the by-product of lumber until particle board made it a valuable commodity.

Construction waste and demolition debris represent inefficiency in your operations and in the construction industry. Manufacturing with recycled materials, reducing the waste generated by your products at the jobsite, and improving the salvage value of your product will increase the value of your product and improve your competitiveness.

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By Michael Chusid
Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, Copyright © 1993