Part of the infrastructure

Features - Operations Focus | Concrete Crushing

Concrete crushing and recycling remain firmly embedded in the materials supply chain via demolition, construction and highway projects.

November 1, 2022

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The business cycles of the past 20 years have created ups and downs for construction firms and their equipment suppliers, including companies that crush and recycle concrete and suppliers of their recycling equipment.

Levels of investment in concrete recycling, however, demonstrate a positive trend line that points to advantages for miners of the “urban quarry” who can create rock products within metropolitan areas.

While the next twist in the overall business cycle might slow down crushing and recycling activity in the U.S., the concrete recycling sector overall enjoys strong links with critical business trends, including fuel and cost savings, shifts toward more sustainable practices and investments and spending on infrastructure.

Follow the money

Germany-based Heidelberg Materials describes itself as one of the world’s largest “integrated manufacturers of building materials and solutions with leading market positions in cement, aggregates and ready-mixed concrete.”

The firm, which generates $18 billion in annual revenue, includes Texas-based Lehigh Hanson Inc. among its global holdings. In a move demonstrating the company’s confidence in aggregates recycling, Lehigh Hanson in October acquired JEV Recycling Inc., a recycler of concrete and asphalt with a facility in Woodinville, Washington.

Lehigh Hanson and Heidelberg also recently added a new concrete recycling plant at the Cadman Inc. location in Redmond, Washington.

“The new facility processes concrete rubble into recycled concrete aggregates,” Lehigh Hanson says of the Washington facility. “The product will be marketed under the brand name Revolve and will be used in ready-mixed concrete and as base material.”

Smaller businesses that typically crush and recycle end-of-life concrete generated at demolition, construction and highway project sites might not welcome deep-pocketed investments by multinational firms.

When Oliver Patsch, president of Lehigh Hanson’s Canada Region, says, “We are pleased by the progress we are making to grow our recycling businesses in the Pacific Northwest,” smaller entrepreneurs and family business owners likely interpret that to mean they face additional competition in the market.

While more companies might be fighting for a piece of the pie, trends—including corporate sustainability goals and increased infrastructure spending—have led to a larger overall pie most years in the U.S.

A 2018 Iowa State University study surveyed two dozen highway contractors that had undertaken more than 1,000 projects by then and found that more than half “indicated they recycled 81 percent to 100 percent of the pavement removals.”

A study released this summer by India-based Future Market Insights Inc. found North America is a global center of concrete recycling activity. “Due to the increasing demand for recycled concrete aggregates as a sustainable source across the region, North America dominated the recycled concrete aggregates market and accounted for the largest revenue share of around 41 percent in 2022,” the report’s authors write.

The research firm predicts “the sales of recycled concrete aggregates are quickly increasing as a result of increased residential construction and infrastructure development.” In that global scenario, the U.S. is ahead of the curve. With its recent moves, Lehigh Hanson and Heidelberg could become a deep-pocketed ally in any upcoming regulatory battles. Plus, the influence of a large equipment buyer could help boost the recycling-related product development plans of crushing and screening technology providers.

Positive attention

Veteran operators of mobile or stationary concrete crushing plants have seen no shortage of new technology, new plant configurations and new brands during the past 30 years.

Global companies with deep roots in the quarrying and mining sectors, such as Finland-based Metso Outotec or Tennessee-based Astec Industries, and pioneering recycling-specific plant providers, such as Ohio-based Eagle Crusher Co., have benefited from the growth of concrete recycling while also watching new competitors pour into the space.

On its website, Eagle Crusher credits long-time CEO Susanne Cobey for reacting to “the frustration” customers were feeling in the 1980s when using “traditional jaw and cone” models to process asphalt and concrete with embedded rebar.

Cobey championed Eagle’s horizontal shaft impactor- (HSI-) style crushers as the company opened a dedicated plant to build HSI machines for the recycling market in 1984.

During the 21st century, other companies have joined Eagle in investing to serve the growing concrete recycling market.

In 2019, New Jersey-based Terex Corp.—which owns several United Kingdom-based brands that produce crushers and screeners—announced it would build a new manufacturing facility in Northern Ireland at a cost of more than $12 million.

The 105,000-square-foot facility opened the following year, initially manufacturing equipment for the Terex Ecotec brand of crushers and screens, as well as mobile conveyors to accompany the existing recycling units.

“As people, businesses and governments become more aware of their environmental footprint, we’re seeing enormous growth in demand for environmental equipment globally,” said Kieran Hegarty, president of Terex Materials Processing, at the facility opening in 2020. “We’re excited that [the facility] has started producing equipment to cater [to] this market—the type of equipment capable of processing construction and demolition waste or everyday waste from your home—to be exported all over the world.”

Terex says its Ecotec product line “has grown significantly since it was established in 2014” in response to what the global company calls “the specialized needs of customers in the growing waste management and recycling sector.”

Equipment companies continue investing in this market because of a generally positive climate for concrete recycling activities. On a question-and-answer page on its website, Metso Outotec asks and answers its own question, stating, “How does the future of recycled concrete look like? Bright, without a doubt.”

As crushing company owners and managers prepare for 2023, however, that doesn’t mean the near-term horizon is completely devoid of trouble.

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A cloud or two

Spending tied to President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has spurred additional construction, demolition and highway work, circulating billions of taxpayer dollars in these sectors.

Nonetheless, the Washington-based Portland Cement Association (PCA) forecasts a 3.5 percent decline in demand for cement in the U.S. in 2023. Demand for cement, as an ingredient of concrete, ties into construction and highway project activity.

According to the PCA, the predicted slump in demand for cement marks the first decline in 13 years and is “expected to be short-lived,” with growth returning in 2024.

“Due to inflation and rising interest rates, economic growth is expected to remain sluggish through mid-2023, with unemployment reaching 4.7 percent,” PCA Chief Economist and Senior Vice President Edward J. Sullivan says. “Inflation is expected to remain high, leading to further monetary policy tightening through this year and into early next [year].”

Sullivan adds, “Easing economic conditions typically result in higher vacancy rates and soft leasing rates. In the context of net operating conditions expected for 2023, nonresidential construction will likely add to the declines originating from the residential sector.”

Another source of tension for crushing plant operators that seems unlikely to dissipate is nuisance complaints pertaining to crusher noise and dust.

Last year, McKinney, Texas, was the site of one such confrontation by residents. The city council eventually approved a permit for a 54-acre concrete recycling plant on the fringe of McKinney, which is home to nearly 200,000 people.

According to the Community Impact website, the McKinney City Council approved the permit after community members objected, and the plant’s operator promised accommodations that included a 6-foot berm around its property.

The website quotes McKinney City Council Member Geré Feltus as saying during the meeting, “Look at the science. I think if any one of us felt like this was remotely going to have a huge negative impact on that area, on property values, on your health and your safety, we would not move for this.”

Outcomes such as the one in McKinney are not always achieved when concrete-crushing firms seek to expand. However, similar conversations with communities increasingly will be necessary as the sector continues to build on the growth it has enjoyed in the past several decades.

The author is senior editor with the Recycling Today Media Group and can be contacted at btaylor@gie.net.