Budget constraints and increasing community demand are placing heightened pressure on governments and road maintenance providers to explore innovative products and solutions.
Earlier this year, the New South Wales Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) launched the ‘Innovation Network’, an initiative aimed at finding new ways of maintaining state roads. This is the first initiative of its kind for RMS, and it comes as Australia’s roads are expected to experience a 60 per cent increase in passengers and freight by 2100, and a 25 per cent payload increase over the next decade, according to Infrastructure Australia’s 2015 Infrastructure Maintenance report.
The net effect of these variables creates a tug-of-war for roads maintenance providers, which are increasingly expected to stretch the funding dollar further, while adopting new and often expensive environmentally-sustainable business practices.
In addition, governments want proved, low-risk innovation because of the repercussions that could occur if a new product fails on a public network.
To meet those challenges, Downer has launched a new business called Reconomy, which is tasked with finding cost-effective, environmentally friendly solutions.
Reconomy is already successfully recycling material that would have once gone into landfill, including old car and truck tyres and expired printer cartridges, and repurposing this material into new bituminous products.
More than 300,000 tonnes of this material has been recycled from Downer’s roads business alone, with material including glass shards, old car and truck tyres, recycled asphalt (RAP) and green waste.
“Reconomy enables us to bundle our environmentally sustainable initiatives under one business. We’re taking this seriously, and investing heavily in innovation for the future,” says Downer’s Executive General Manager Roads Services, Dante Cremasco.
The latest development for Downer’s Reconomy business is the building of a $6 million recycling facility in Sydney, aimed at repurposing street-sweeping waste.
“The road itself is a huge catchment, and if anything falls off a truck, a car, off somebody, a cyclist, it all ends up there and it gets picked up mechanically by street-sweeping trucks,” Mr. Cremasco says.
Once operational, this facility will process six cubic metres of street sweeping in every load, cost effectively separating green waste, road grit, plastics, metallic objects and clay into useable, environmentally sustainable products.
“There is a cost to process the material, but in the scheme of things, the real saving is that you’re depositing only five to 10 percent of what you collect to a landfill, compared to 100 per cent,” Mr. Cremasco says. “That equates to 20,000 to 40,000 tonnes of waste reused and diverted from going in the ground.”
Mr. Cremasco says cost is one of the major challenges that businesses encounter when seeking to adopt environmentally sustainable practices, specifically from the increased processing required to separate components and clean the raw materials, before even starting the process of creating new products. But, Mr. Cremasco says Downer has found a solution to reducing the cost, by creating improved business efficiency. One initiative Downer can focus on, when the facility is built, is improving their street-sweeping operations.
Currently, street sweepers spend long periods travelling to and from their worksite to discharge their load, and often, these discharge facilities are not open at the time street sweepers are working.
Once its Reconomy facility is operational, next to one of its major asphalt plants, Downer plans to eradicate this downtime and significantly optimise sweeping operations. Some street sweepers are presently restricted to completing one load per shift; once the plant is operational, this could be significantly increased, Mr. Cremasco says, simply by having a discharge facility located close to the network and open during street-sweeping operations.
In addition, Downer also reaps secondary cost and environmental benefits by using less diesel, as street sweepers no longer have to travel long distances to discharge, which equates to less equipment maintenance and significantly longer equipment working life.
Downer’s Reconomy plant will open on 5 June this year, on World Environment Day, to mark the company’s increased commitment to environmental sustainability. Plans are also underway to open a similar facility in Melbourne.
Mr. Cremasco says Downer has also discovered an unexpected benefit from its environmental business operations – some of its new recycled products are delivering better, longer-lasting performance than their first-run counterparts. This means longer working life on surfacing operations for its customers.
“What we’re finding is that some of these recycled products perform better because they’ve already had one lap in the harsh Australian environment, so only the best of the best survive,” Mr. Cremasco says.
“When they go once more through the process, any weaknesses from the first time have already disappeared, so you’re left with some very good material. We repurpose something and reuse it again and again; ending up with something that performs better than the virgin product.”
Another way Downer is looking to improve efficiencies is by extending the road surfacing season, particularly in southern states of Australia, where temperatures can severely limit the time period in which operators can conduct these operations.
To meet this challenge, Downer has invested significantly in its cold emulsion bitumen, which can be applied during colder temperatures, thereby extending the time in which resurfacing operations can be conducted by several months.
Mr Cremasco says the advantages of cold bitumen are numerous. Extending the resurfacing season is one, along with improved worker safety – another of Downer’s commitments.
“Through the emulsification process, you can effectively transport and spray this material at lower ambient temperatures,” Mr. Cremasco says. “From an OH&S perspective, workers will be less likely to be exposed to fumes that come from the heating and spraying operation.”
It also reduces the risks associated with hot bitumen (which is handled at temperatures of around 180 degrees Celsius), such as explosions, boilovers and burns.
Cold emulsion also provides numerous environmental benefits and as such, Downer is researching ways to use more repurposed material in its product, such as old tyres and expired printer toner, saving these from being buried in landfill and instead, using them to create a superior product.
“We see a great opportunity to do more in this space and we are always looking for partners to assist in this initiative,” Mr. Cremasco says.
“Cold bitumen can be manufactured well ahead of time and it has a long shelf life, which lowers cost and minimises the carbon footprint. This reduces the high cost of energy required to keep hot binders in a roadside-ready state.”
Downer has already successfully deployed its cold emulsion bitumen in the ACT over many spray-sealing seasons, giving customers proof that its process works.
To assist road authorities in making this transition with peace of mind, Mr. Cremasco says Downer is acting not just as a service provider but a trusted adviser that can point to experience and proof that its products work.
“Downer is proud of always pushing the envelope and always ensuring that any time we respond to an opportunity from a customer, we not only respond to what they want, but also ask them to consider other opportunities,” Mr. Cremasco says. He adds that this is usually done by showing customers an alternative or different product they can adopt with minimal risk and greater environmental or cost benefits.
“The ACT Government is very driven towards an environmentally sensitive outcome to show that as a government they are doing the right thing,” Mr. Cremasco says. “They’re also allowing the benefit of getting a longer season, which manifests itself in better pricing.”
Increasingly, products that last longer are becoming more attractive for governments, which have smaller funding budgets and need to stretch funding over a wider footprint, he says. To address this need, Downer is also investing heavily in another tried and proven product – crumb rubber sealing.
While not a Downer-specific product, the company is investing significant resources through its national research and development laboratory to find ways to make the product more environmentally friendly and cost effective.
“When it comes to spray sealing, crumb rubber is a fantastic premium product,” Mr. Cremasco says. “Unlike standard bitumen grades that crack when they stretch, the rubber acts like an elastic membrane and stretches with the pavement, which results in less cracking.”
Downer has improved this product by adding expired printer toner to the mix.
“We discovered there is a safer and improved blending process by adding printer toner than we have had with straight-run bitumen. And, we get a far superior product for our customers,” Mr Cremasco says.
By adding printer toner, Downer has created a high-grade engineered polymer that modifies the properties of the standard crumb rubber product by giving it a much higher temperature resistance; this prevents problems such as bleeding when the product endures high ambient temperatures on the road. Downer has called the product TonerSeal, and is seeking to make this the company’s standard crumb rubber seal.
Mr. Cremasco says TonerSeal also delivers significant environmental benefits. For every two kilometres applied on a dual-lane road, Downer uses 3325 standard car tyres, which would have otherwise been buried in landfill, and repurposes these into a high-quality product.
“I foresee a time where, at the insistence of our industry and our customers, we might standardise a small percentage of crumb rubber in every litre of spray seal we do, so that we significantly improve the engineering properties of a straight-run bitumen,” Mr. Cremasco says.
Downer isn’t expecting these changes to occur overnight, he adds, but is working to assist in making these positive changes occur.
“It’s important for the environment, and it’s important to keep the business moving with the times,” Mr. Cremasco says.
Ultimately, the driver for these changes taking place is not just Downer, Mr Cremasco acknowledges, it is the community; but he says the business would be remiss not to listen to this and respond.
“There is a need in the community to ensure we place less stress on existing virgin materials, binders and those sorts of things so they are available for generations to come. By extending the life of these existing raw materials, we ensure they’ve been repurposed and reused and at a cost that is tolerable, with minimal risk to our customers and their customers, the travelling public.”
Mr. Cremasco says what is important for the community is important for industry. “It is important to explore, to innovate and to challenge.
“If your people feel that they can put something forward and not get ridiculed or criticised but, rather, critically assessed, you are creating an innovation tournament and getting to the best ideas quickly.
“I think it’s important that someone is prepared to roll the dice every now and then and lend an ear to new things, and democratise innovation.”