Alex Fraser Group: Recycling Demolished Buildings
A big sandpit…
“For anyone who liked playing with Tonka trucks as a kid, this is a great place to work,” says Peter Murphy, Managing Director of Alex Fraser Group. It’s easy to see why. A fleet of front-end loaders, dump truck and conveyor machines are constantly engaged in the work of piling up or pulling down the great heaps of crushed concrete, sand, glass and asphalt that dot the company’s 36 hectare site in Laverton North, Victoria. Nearby, piles of twisted steel hark back to the company’s origins, in 1879, as a metals broker. Alex Fraser Group operates five similar sites across Melbourne and Brisbane.
The company began recycling activities in the 1950s, and later moved into the demolition business. Steel, bricks and timber were among the materials that could be recycled, but a vast amount of broken concrete needed to be disposed of, usually to landfill.
In the 1980s a solution to the concrete problem was found, and since 1987 Alex Fraser Group has converted 25 million tonnes of old concrete back into aggregate and sand. The resulting material, with exciting names like ‘20 mm Class 4 Crushed Concrete’, is mostly used as a base material in road construction or as backfill for pipelines. Glass and asphalt are also recycled into new asphalt for road surfacing. Steel is recycled and any salvaged items that are still serviceable are sold. “We can recycle over 95% of a demolished building,” Peter says proudly.
…that creates big energy savings
From an environmental perspective, the two big benefits that the company delivers are a reduction in the material going to landfill, and a reduction in carbon emissions.
“RMIT University did a lifecycle analysis for us,” says Peter. “They found that by using our recycled material instead of rock from quarries, carbon emissions are reduced by more than 65%.” This equates to the avoidance of over 100,000 tonnes in carbon dioxide emissions.
The company takes active steps to reduce energy use in a variety of ways. For example, the main crushing plant at Laverton has been built below ground level. This means that the front end loaders that feed materials to the plant don’t need to constantly climb slopes to dump their loads and results in significant fuel savings. It is much more energy efficient to lift the resulting crushed material by conveyor belts. The pit also offers protection from the wind, reducing dust problems and water use. Processes have been revised to minimise double handling of materials.
Efforts to reduce energy consumption reap a number of dividends. There is the immediate saving on fuel costs, and a reduction in the potential impact of a carbon price. As a substantial energy user, Alex Fraser Group is likely to see costs rise with the introduction of a carbon price, but not to the same extent as their competitors.
Peter says that while sustainability is an important consideration to the business, they need to be pragmatic about it. The plant layout reduces carbon emissions, but it is the financial savings that justify the investment. However, the company is more open to embracing sustainability than most and it has won numerous environmental awards. It was a finalist for a prestigious Banksia Award in 2010.
The new head office to be built on the Laverton North site will be energy efficient. Under an agreement with Melbourne Water, storm water from Alex Fraser Group’s site and from a neighbouring property is collected and stored. It is used to suppress dust or added to selected products.
Resistance in the market place
Frustratingly, when it comes to selling their products, the environmental benefits don’t carry much weight. “It’s of interest to some people,” says Peter, “but there are also many potential customers who won’t even consider using recycled product. People tend to stick with what they know.” He says buyers’ priorities are quality, reliability and price, usually in that order. Environmental gains are an incidental benefit after everything else is taken into account.
To assure both quality and reliability the business operates a NATA-registered laboratory, and in 2010 achieved accreditation under the international quality standard ISO 9001.
Peter is optimistic about the future. There is room to increase production volumes with current capacity and supply of demolition materials seems to be stable. The global financial crisis caused a dip in demand for product, but this has since recovered.
The company is looking to expand into other cities and to develop more sites within Melbourne, though this is both time consuming and costly. There is also stiff competition from quarries to contend with.
So how does Alex Fraser Group manage to grow in the face of buyer resistance and stiff competition?
“Persistence,” says Peter. “Our people take pride in the business and if they believe that something can be done then they won’t take no for an answer. They’re always looking for new and better ways of doing things. And once a customer tries our product, they tend to come back for more.”