The eternal Cycle
Humans leave behind a huge amount of waste that nature is unable to recycle. The raw materials that exist within this waste can therefore only be used once. In other words, they are only conceived for linear material flows – “from cradle to grave”. This means that a large amount of valuable and finite resources ends up in waste incineration plants and landfill sites – and is therefore irretrievably lost.
Over the long term we will be forced to bring our actions into line with the lifecycle principle of the natural environment around us. The solution is innovative and intelligent product design in which all of the materials used circulate within technical and biological cycles. In other words we must think in advance about what is going to happen in the future; we must think in terms of permanent product cycles – “from cradle to cradle”.
It is in Xella’s commercial and ecological interests to recycle as many of the raw materials used in production as possible. For this reason, our Sustainability Council has decided that all of the products manufactured by our brands Ytong, Silka, Multipor and Fermacell should conform to the requirements of the lifecycle principle. This means that these products must re-enter the raw material cycle so that they can be used in the manufacture of other products. For example, all of the production waste from our autoclaved aerated concrete and calcium silicate block factories can be re-used with this system. They may either be used as a basic material in the mixing process or ground into granulate and then processed into other products.
Useful instead of harmless
But this doesn’t go far enough: Our objective is to offer at least one product from each of our brands that meets the Cradle to Cradle criteria. Cradle to Cradle1 is not an environmental protection concept in the conventional sense. It is far more a new way of doing business in which all products are dismantlable and materials and processes are optimized such that they are rendered not only harmless, but even become useful once the product’s useful life has expired. In the same way as the biomass cycle – in which biomass is constantly converted by many living organisms into new building blocks or nutrients for new life – the industrial products manufactured by humans should also remain within a technical cycle or be reintegrated into the biological cycle as nutrients.
The concept behind this is to achieve a system where industrial consumer goods of a consistent quality circulate in closed-loop systems. A closed-loop system is important because materials can be used – even though they may pose problems to the environment – that are still irreplaceable in a large number of products. Such materials must be carefully selected and must also be capable of being easily broken down again into their individual constituents. For example, the gypsum produced in the reprocessing plant at our factory in Wijchen using residual gypsum waste from building sites or demolished buildings conforms to this cyclical principle. One hundred percent of this treated gypsum can be returned to Fermacell’s gypsum fiberboard panel production cycle.
Certificate for Ytong and Multipor
Products which fulfil the Cradle to Cradle criteria and contain environmentally compatible and healthy products that can be re-used within closed- loop systems – in other words recyclable or compostable materials – can be tested and certified by organizations such as the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA) or the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute (C2CPII). The first product for which Xella received a Cradle to Cradle Certificate in 2011 was Ytong Energy+. This particularly energy-efficient composite block is formed like a sandwich from two layers of autoclaved aerated concrete with a core made of Multipor. Ytong and Multipor products are made primarily of sand, lime, cement and water. They can be fully recycled and used in the manufacture of new building materials. In 2013 the Ytong and Multipor products also received certification.
It was also planned to certify Silka calcium silicate blocks and the Fermacell gypsum fiberboard panels. However, modified Cradle to Cradle criteria have prevented this. Before a certificate can be issued, companies must now demonstrate that they have contributed to the expansion of energy generated from renewable sources or, alternatively, produce renewables-based electricity themselves. Simply purchasing eco-electricity from existing sources is not sufficient. Furthermore, a strategy for improving the company’s carbon footprint is also required. In this context, building materials are not considered to be a component of an end product (building) and its energy balance. On the contrary, the building material for which certification is sought must in itself exhibit an improved carbon footprint. This in turn impedes product developments in which CO2 savings are achieved only when a building is taken into use, but for which higher CO2 emissions arise during production of the building material. In the face of these stricter criteria, we have decided not to pursue the certification of further products. Not at every plant the generation of energy or purchasing green electricity makes economic sense for Xella.
Not all products are equally suitable
One important requirement of the Cradle to Cradle principle clearly illustrates why building materials are generally not so well suited for certification – namely the requirement to buy as few products and materials as possible, but only to use them upon payment of a fee. By leasing them, the materials remain the property of the manufacturer and are returned to the manufacturer following a defined period of use. The benefit of this system is that the manufacturer can use higher quality materials without being forced to employ them sparingly, because they are returned for re-use. This is a desirable principle that can be practically implemented with cars or computers for example. But with building materials – that often remain for a century or more in a building where they are subject to various changes over time – it is either impossible or extremely difficult to implement.
1 Cradle to Cradle is a registered trademark.