Ecogroup: Recycling Old Houses Into New(ish) Materials
Walking the talk
“We estimate that we recycle about 97% by weight of each house we demolish,” says Ecogroup owner Toby Sail. With each house demolition yielding around 60 tonnes of materials, this recycling represents a huge decrease in materials going to landfill.
To demonstrate his personal commitment to the resultant product, Toby points out that his entire office building is constructed from recycled materials. Walls, doors and windows all came from demolished buildings. “The air conditioner, the kitchen, even the palm trees outside are all recycled,” he says.
It doesn’t stop there. Ecogroup’s engineers are adept at incorporating recycled materials into the machinery they build and maintain on site. All this recycling is aided by an approach to demolition that seeks to achieve as much separation of different materials as possible at the demolition site.
Demolition, bricks and bins
Ecogroup comprises three related businesses – Ecodemolition, Ecobricks and Ecobins. The bins are made available at a budget price provided they are only filled with steel, timber, bricks or concrete – all materials that Ecogroup can readily recycle. Demolition yields a variety of materials, including roof tiles, but bricks seem to be Toby’s big passion.
“We have one of only two brick cleaning machines in the world, and the only one in Australia,” he says. “It gives us a huge capacity to process bricks and get them ready for reuse. Some bricks we see are off for their third use – they’ve already been through two buildings.”
This affinity for brick and the company’s commitment to being Australia’s largest recycler of bricks may explain Toby’s preference for demolishing double brick buildings over weatherboard and brick veneer. It also explains Ecogroup’s location. “Melbourne has Australia’s best clay for bricks. We haven’t established branches in other states because of the lower quality of their local bricks,” says Toby. Instead, he supplies the whole of Australia from his Melbourne premises.
New products and markets
Processing timber is becoming a larger part of the business. Much of the hardwood framing from a building goes through a hammer mill and is turned into mulch. This can be used in landscaping, but is increasingly being turned into high density briquettes that replace firewood.
The timber side of the business reveals some of the challenges involved in balancing the supply and demand of some materials. “First you create the product” says Toby, “then you need to develop the market. In the case of timber mulch we had a promise from a customer to take large volumes, but it didn’t come to fruition. That’s why we developed the briquettes.”
With other products, it’s a struggle to keep up with demand. A by product of brick cleaning is a lot of broken bricks. Crushed into a form that allows it to be used as a topping, the product is enjoying strong demand.
Benefits of diversification
This spread of products helps Ecogroup during periods such as the current downturn in the building industry. “Demolition is the first to feel any decline in building activity and it’s an industry in which there is a lot of competition,” Toby notes. “With a wider product range we do enjoy a bit of a buffer, and there is consistent demand for recycled bricks.”
Growing interest in more sustainable building practices also help. Toby points out that there are no regulatory incentives to use recycled materials so customers need to be self-motivated. With new bricks and roof tiles requiring a lot of energy to make, using recycled products offers a clear environmental benefit. “Some of our clients want to demonstrate environmental credentials to their clients. We even supply recycled bricks back to some of the original manufacturers.”
Some demolition customers take back the recovered bricks for use in the new building. “Doing demolition our way costs about 10% more than conventional demolition,” says Toby, “but most of that can be recouped by rebuilding with recycled materials.”
Toby came to demolition and bricks via plant “recycling”. As a landscape gardener he often found himself relocating mature plants from demolition sites to new gardens. In 1999 he went into partnership with Delta Group, a demolition company that purchased the iconic Whelan the Wrecker business after it went into receivership in 1991. In 2007 Toby struck out on his own to establish Ecogroup in 2007.
“With Ecogroup I was able to select candidates who shared a similar vision,” says Toby. “We now have 44 employees, and despite tough times for the building industry, we are growing. Collectively we’re trying to create a legacy for the next generation.”
Ecogroup uses green power, has installed water tanks capable of holding 90,000 litres of runoff from buildings and surfaces, and has plans to use the wood briquettes to generate power on site.
On top of its other initiatives, that adds up to more than a legacy. It’s a shining example for other businesses to emulate.