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Technology and Practice Key to Optimising Concrete with Recycled Materials

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15 September 2020

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Strength and quality are attributes measurable on a scale. High quality and low, strong, and weak. So too are the quality and structural integrity of recycled sand and aggregates, writes Eunan Kelly, Head of C&D Waste Recycling at CDE. We recently caught up with Eunan to learn more about the importance of the right technology, and the right processes to unlock the concrete potential in recycled sand & aggregates.

When supported with the appropriate processing practices and technology, sand and stone resources recovered from CD&E activities are suitable for high-value construction and infrastructure projects.

UK Statistics on Waste, published by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, estimates the UK generated 221 million tonnes of total waste in 2016, with CD&E activities accounting for 62% of that total[1]. This is over 3/5 of total waste in the UK!

The industry is the single largest contributor to waste generation in the UK by some margin, accounting for more than five times that of household waste which is 12% of total waste generated. These waste resources can be recovered to a high specification and returned to the construction sector to further the UK’s circular economy.

A Time for Change

In the materials processing industry, we’re having to speak out in defence of recycled sand and aggregates and lobby for attitudinal change to encourage greater acceptance and adoption of recycled materials.

We’re often told it’s not possible to produce structurally sound concrete from recycled sand and aggregates or it’s unfeasible to replicate the water-to-cement ratio with recycled products to produce a durable concrete. Some people have even suggested that concrete produced from recycled aggregates has more embodied carbon than concrete produced from natural materials. These are arguments our industry is faced with regularly, and misconceptions that we at CDE move to challenge.

Today, research is on-going to identify alternatives to sand and aggregates in concrete production. Some of the research centres around the use of woods, shredded up vehicle components, and other unnatural concrete constituents. Such research seemingly disregards our largest waste stream, construction, demolition & excavation waste (CD&E), and fails to recognise the fact that much of the material in this stream originates from the natural constituents of concrete and therefore lending itself perfectly to producing concrete.

Though a huge social issue, the volume of plastic waste does not represent anywhere near the same as that of CD&E waste. Unlike plastic waste, a product that has been heavily processed for its original use, sand, and stone recovered from CD&E waste shares the same or similar geological make-up to that of virgin materials.

The Logical Answer

To combat depleting natural sand and aggregate resources we should better utilise the abundant incoming CD&E waste stream.

In its appraisal, concrete produced from recycled sand and aggregates is unfairly pitted against higher-strength concrete produced using virgin aggregate, such as granite or basalt, and natural sand. It is fair to say that not all granite or sandstone deposits display the same strength characteristics and therefore selective end-use logic is applied.

The same is true for sand and aggregates recovered from CD&E waste. Given the variability of rock geologies and other man-made aggregates, such as brick and bound concrete, we must also apply the same end-use logic.

This should not, however, undermine the potential of concrete produced from recycled materials. It is a case of identifying the strength of concrete that can be produced from recycled sand and aggregates and then pinpointing suitable applications for the product. It should also be pointed out that current wet processing technologies deployed by CDE around the world can produce washed sand and aggregates that when used in the production of similar strength concrete are comparable in cement consumption.

Low strength granite or gritstone would not be used to construct a multi-storey building, but we can identify suitable concrete strength applications for their use. Similarly, with CD&E material, we may never use it to construct that same multi-storey building, but there are still many applications for which it is suitable.

The C&D Pioneers

For example, Thompson Recycling, based in Scotland, produces a wide range of products for the construction sector using C&D waste. With the support of CDE technology, the company is able to replicate the grading of local virgin sand deposits to provide the local construction market with a viable and creditable alternative to natural resources. Such is the quality of the recycled sand and aggregates it extracts from C&D waste, its 100% recycled sand is BSI-approved for structural concrete.

Current concrete strength specifications allow for recycled aggregates to be used in the appropriate proportions to produce the required strength. It’s probably fair to say that the majority of concrete produced is C40 or below. 

Approximately 75% of all concrete used globally is non-structural which begs the question, why are we using structural grade aggregates to produce non-structural concrete?

Surely we would use the appropriate material provided it gives us the appropriate outcome. In so many cases globally CDE customers are producing competitive concrete for these non-structural – but still high value – construction projects, with some applications successfully achieving beyond C45.

Determining whether a recycled concrete product is fit for purpose or not is dependent on how it is processed and its intended use.

Sheehan Group C&D Waste Wash Plant - CDE

Indeed, the Sheehan Group, one of the UK’s leading regional construction groups, has diverted over 750,000 tonnes of inert waste from landfill over the past seven years. It creates 20,000 building blocks a day from 100% recycled aggregates which follows a CE-certified process. Improved and advanced technology now sees the cement consumption reduced by 10% and Sheehan Group is still achieving the same high-quality specification and end product.

The group’s success shows that with the appropriate practices and the backing of the latest wet processing technology, high-quality in-spec sand and aggregate products can be extracted from CD&E waste and returned to support new construction and infrastructure both consistently and competitively.

It is important to acknowledge, however, that poor processing practices impact uptake and acceptance in the usability of recycled materials. This is due to antiquated or less efficient technologies that fail to effectively remove contaminants, such as wood and plastic, from the feedstock. The presence of these contaminants impacts the strength and structure of concrete.

Meeting Growing Demand

Soaring urbanisation presents a global challenge to meet the demands of the construction industry, and recycled materials are an effective solution when supported by the most appropriate technologies and practices.

It is anticipated that by 2050, over two-thirds of the world’s population (68%) will be living in urban settings, according to data from the United Nations[2], rising from around 55% of the population today. Combined with projections population growth, trends in urbanisation could add up to 2.5 billion to urban settings over the next 30 years. It remains to be seen how the recent Covid-19 pandemic will impact population growth, but it will undoubtedly weigh on future planning considerations for construction and infrastructure as a means to mitigate against the threat of disruption caused by future pandemics.

Economies have been hit hard by the crisis and as history has shown governments tend to respond by investing in infrastructure to kickstart the economy, or in construction to restore manufacturing facilities, and we’re already seeing this in the UK and USA. This is where CDE technology will add value by maximising the quality, quantity, and value of waste resources.

Currently an estimated 40-50 billion metric tonnes of primary aggregates – crushed rock, sand, and gravel – is extracted every year[3], and GAIN, the Global Aggregates Information Network, in its global outlook to 2030, estimates aggregates production will rise to 60 billion tonnes per year over the next decade to support growth in urban populations.

CDE customer Velde Pukk AS plays a significant role in meeting the material demands in Stavanger, Norway, in the face of a construction boom. Utilising high-quality recycled aggregates and its on-site concrete batching plant, Velde Pukk AS supplies the construction industry with a CE-certified concrete from 100% recycled sand and aggregates. Likewise, AF Gruppen, also based in Norway, produces high-quality washed sands and aggregates which have also Norwegian standard certification.

A Certified Standard

It would be wrong to assume recycled sand and aggregates are only selected as alternatives to finite virgin materials in low strength and low-value applications. Our process improves the quality of recycled sand and aggregates by removing foreign contaminants and classifying the output, resulting in higher-spec recycled products that can be used to produce concrete products.

Like so many of CDE’s pioneering customers leading the charge for a circular economy, and who have demonstrated the potential in CD&E waste by achieving certification for their recycled products, we need to recognise the strength and integrity of using recycled materials.

The recycling sector will continue to grow and it will gradually become more competitive. CDE is working with its customers to stay ahead of that curve and to adopt efficient and sustainable technologies that are future-ready. Those customers who have integrated wet processing technology into their plant are reaping the commercial advantages of superior-end products and are facilitating sustainable construction by recovering high quality recycled materials.

From waste to resource with the Sheehan Group - the Circular Economy in action.

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