By Angel Petrov (Dvevnik)
Breaching environmental protection laws is a criminal act in Germany. This is a popular joke at the largest production base of Feess, the first German company to close the production cycle of building materials; it builds, it demolishes and it reuses the debris.
The joke gets a laugh because at Feess, winner of the biggest 2016 award for environmental protection in Europe, they do know people who have disposed of construction debris improperly, even if by necessity, and spent a night (or longer) at the police station. Penalties for throwing away construction materials have become the norm in a number of countries seeking higher standards. In Germany these rules have become part of a system. The much-discussed energy transition (Energiewende) that covers a whole range of areas of human activity, from energy to mobility to town planning, is taking place in construction as well – and that despite the explosive growth in the sector (the number of permits issued rose 26% in 2016 compared to the year before) and a rise in demand for new housing.
The ambitious goal to reduce harmful emissions by 40 percent by 2020 compared to 1990 levels seems hard to achieve. To even come close the construction industry will have to make a significant contribution, as it is accountable for a large percentage of greenhouse gas emissions. The German government new Climate Action Plan for the period up until 2050 states the need to review and create opportunities for transforming the entire life cycle of materials. Construction companies are already incentivised to think outside the box about how to save on materials, to reduce the size of landfill and disposal sites, to cut their transportation costs and most of all how to bring resources back into the economy.
Walter Feess is one of the people putting the theory of “energy transition into practice. He includes recycling in the range of activities of the family construction company that bears his name. Initially, he added demolition to the company’s variety of services because he noticed that the thousands of tonnes of debris that remained that were difficult to transport and could be put to better use. As time went by, this innovative procedure became the standard. But when he started out Feess was the only company licensed by the German government for the production and use of recycled construction materials, and particularly for the recycled concrete that received last year’s award.
Closing the cycle
Now, 60 years on and with over 200 employees, the company is one of the most productive enterprises in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, with activities covering construction engineering, demolition and recycling, transportation, waste management and soil conditioning, Frank Hubert tells me. He is the sales manager at Feess, and is in charge of deliveries of recycled concrete and sharing knowledge with universities.
From the window of the plant’s research centre located close to Stuttgart, one can see Hubert start a tour of the plant with journalists from Central and Eastern Europe. They were invited by consultancy firm adelphi on behalf of the German Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety [EMW1] to explore Baden-Württemberg and get an idea of how the energy transition is taking place in industry by meeting face-to-face with the Germans driving the trend. Judging by what Hubert says, at least in Baden-Württemberg, the transition has become ingrained in the thinking of buyers who prefer recycled materials in order to “give a good example”.
Hubert points to the opposite side of the site where there are huge scales for weighing the many tonnes of material. Each day they are used on average around 300 times, and each year the site reprocesses around 800,000 tonnes of material. He explains that both the customers who dispose of material and those who buy it have to pay. “We accept material that customers want to get rid of. If those customers want the material to be reprocessed, they pay one more time. These “customers” are usually construction companies, gardens and municipalities that are striving to be role models in Germany. However, these groups only buy about 70% of the material; the rest goes to Feess’s construction business, thus closing the production cycle and in some cases constructing buildings using the reprocessed material sourced from the buildings it has demolished.
“We want to reuse construction debris. In previous years a lot of material was dumped in landfill sites. And in Germany we don’t have enough landfill sites and no permits are being issued for new ones. That is why we have to reuse the materials and why we need look at the entire life cycle of these materials. We have to close the cycle. We want to reuse the materials,” Hubert explains.
Why is recycled concrete special
Although the final carbon footprint of concrete is lower than for other materials, its production is energy intensive, as it materials such as limestone, clay, sand and iron have to be mixed and then baked at a temperature of over 1,000 degrees Celsius. In 2012 concrete production accounted for around 4% of the world’s carbon emissions.
Walter Feess’s belief that throwing debris away in landfill sites as a waste was shared by construction engineer Angelike Metke. Several years ago they began working together to research the possible reuse of materials. For Metke, the crucial event that motivated her to join the cause was the fall of the Berlin Wall, when hundreds of multi-storey concrete buildings were demolished in East Germany. “So much material and energy is used to make concrete blocks, so I was thrilled at the thought of keeping them in the supply chain” said Metke in an interview with Deutsche Welle.
But the task is not simple – once concrete has been used in the construction industry it cannot be reused immediately, because its surface absorbs fuels and paint. Feess developed a cleaning system to remove these impurities, ensuring that the quality of the “recycled” product is the same as in unused concrete. In East Germany there are now residential and municipal buildings being built from recycled concrete and a resolution by the local authorities has now ensured that this will become the standard for new multi-storey buildings in Berlin in future.
This is where Metke’s contribution can be observed. Apart from successfully testing Feess’ materials, she has also proved that reusing concrete elements improves the solidity of embankments in areas with high risk of flooding. “If this innovative approach and this commitment were to be mimicked across the construction industry, on average one third of the demand for materials could be met through recycling,” said the panel that awarded Feess Germany’s award for environmental protection, a prize granted since 1993 and associated with €500,000.
Apart from concrete and asphalt, Feess manufactures nearly 40 varieties of products, including gravel and soil for green roofs. Hubert explains that the price per tonne is higher than for unprocessed materials, but a lot of companies and municipalities prefer to buy recycled materials. Some of them can be seen around the recycling plant, arranged next to the concrete blocks reprocessed by Feess.
Each day various materials arrive that have to be sorted – from used asphalt to concrete debris to stones used for the construction of railways and tiles (of which soil is also made). Useless waste materials, such as plastics and rags, are separated manually. A custom-built machine washes out the particulate pollutants from the materials. Stones are sorted by size using a water pressure device. Some of them are sent off to other centres for recycling – for example, metal is removed with the help of a special magnet. Prior to processing used concrete is crushed with the help of special machines similar to scissors or jaws.
The energy required to carry out all of these activities mainly comes from a single place – the solar panels on the roof, says Hubert. “However, the company sometimes uses electricity from the grid. However, this is only if the weather remains bad over a long period of time, for example, three weeks or more. Excess energy is fed into the power grid.”
Hubert says he is aware that there are currently some limitations to recycling construction materials. Despite the best efforts of Feess and the thousands of other processing companies operating in Germany , about ten percent of construction materials cannot at this stage be kept in the economic cycle. Moreover, most of these plants only work at a local level. Transporting materials distances exceeding 60 kilometres is too labour intensive and expensive, he says. “We have even had inquiries from China and Arab countries,” but these kinds of activities are not cost effective over large distances, he adds. In neighbouring Switzerland, there are even penalities for transporting materials over large distances.
“We recycle 10 percent of the waste that would otherwise be sent to landfill”. Ten percent is also the market share of recycled materials in the German construction sector, and according to Hubert this is not only because the company cannot reprocess all waste – for example, the company does not handle gypsum and other light waste. He also discussed the need for politicians and the administrative authorities, to provide more political support – for example, by passing measures to encourage the use of recycled materials. In North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, newly-adopted technical specifications for construction are forcing companies to start using recycled materials, but it will take time before this becomes standard.