The road to improvement

Bruce Spencer-Knott discusses why the surfacing sector needs to embrace innovation

The road surfacing and construction industries are often seen as dirty and pollutive, and generally don’t have the best of reputations. However, the wealth of technology to transform our industry to achieve better results with a reduced impact on the environment, is largely going unused.

Twenty years after we launched, the civil engineering and road surfacing industries have changed, but they haven’t changed much. Across my own business, we’ve invested in a wide range of technologies and systems to cut our impact on the environment and to improve the quality of our work, but we all need to act if we’re to bring real, lasting change.

In a changing world, where more and more people and businesses are becoming conscious of the impact of their actions on the environment, we have a duty and a need to embrace the innovative solutions which will help us to improve.

Last year, my company, Minster Group, won one of the UK’s most prestigious green awards: the BusinessGreen Leaders Award for Circular Economy of the Year. We’re very proud to have our hard work to cut waste and emissions recognised and receiving this kind of recognition is very important because changing people’s thought processes is essential.

Many companies are stuck in their ways, but we all need to explore and showcase what’s possible when it comes to reducing our carbon footprint and modernising our industry.

Cutting carbon footprints
Trying to reduce our impact on the environment and make the most of new, innovative technologies wherever possible is vital, and the widespread use of recycling technology is an essential first step for the industry.

The technology to recycle roads has been available for a long time and it’s been widely used for decades in many countries. Here, however, the industry has been slow to catch on.

In 2014, we became one of the first companies in the UK to be using OCL Regeneration’s Foambase recycling technology and it’s transformed the way we work. This one innovation has helped us to save hundreds of thousands of tonnes of material from going to landfill and it’s cut thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions while also saving our clients and the taxpayer money.

With Foambase technology, material that’s removed from old road surfaces is converted into a durable alternative to asphalt as well as binder course products. This creates a safe and durable product that can be recycled and relaid many times in the future. As well as reducing the need for more mineral aggregate or crude oil, the creation of Foambase is much more efficient and sustainable than traditional hot asphalt; it produces 32 per cent less CO2 and the technology even allows for material containing coal tar to be safely recycled and reused.

Coal tar, which is found in 85 per cent of roads can be deemed hazardous, costing councils up to £100 per tonne to send to landfill, so recycling the material has a significant financial and environmental benefit.

Emissions can also be reduced through waste reduction and quality assurance strategies throughout the construction process. For instance, we use vehicle-mounted 3D laser scanners to create highly accurate maps of the roads we’re working on to create CAD instructions for our construction teams and automated machinery.

We also use GPS tracking, temperature monitoring and load logging to monitor and track everything while our roads are laid to ensure our work is up to standard and waste is minimised.

In this way, we’re using our material much more responsibly. By working more accurately and by checking and monitoring quality as we work, we’re not having to dig up and replace large sections of roads at the end of the work, saving time, resources and emissions.

Introducing new technology and inspiring modernisation
When managing a business, it’s vital to recognise the importance of changing with the times and encouraging modernisation. Implementing technology wherever possible to meet the demand for more efficient solutions.

Whether it’s the use of systems like our vehicle mounted 3D laser scanners or the use of recycled plastics in pothole and patch repair, the technology exists to transform road surfacing from one of the dirtiest parts of the construction industry into one of the cleanest.

While the ecological argument for these innovations is clear, there’s also a strong business case for embracing new ways of working.

The technology that’s available today can improve the quality of our work and reduce the costs for clients and disruption to road users. For example, roads usually have to be closed while measurements are taken with a measuring tape or tripod-mounted lasers which are operated from the roadside. Using technology such as TopCon’s SmoothRide, roads can be measured from the safety of a vehicle’s passenger seat in normal traffic conditions and the measurements are almost ten times as accurate. This means workers are kept safe, roads are kept open, the work can be completed faster, we can reduce waste and improve the overall quality of the work.

Also, a company that embraces technology and which genuinely cuts emissions and reduces waste is becoming a more attractive proposition for clients. Whether a company works with councils, housing developers, retailers, universities or tourist attractions, more and more organisations are mindful of ways they can reduce the environmental impact of their work and so choosing a contractor that uses greener systems can play a big role in helping them to reduce the environmental cost of their projects.

Promoting innovation
As it is, our industry has been slow to innovate and reluctant to commit to green technologies and waste reduction strategies. Caught between the desire to be green and the need to keep costs down, many organisations choose the cheaper, more pollutive option. Making this choice a certainty for many organisations is the fact that many of them are unaware that there are greener and more technological alternatives to the more traditional civil engineering contractors they know of.

To many, road surfacing is and always will be a dirty, pollutive, slow and dangerous industry and this holds us all back from truly modernising. What we need to do is to showcase our innovations, demonstrate green ways we can work and to keep pushing, collectively, to modernise our whole industry.

Being technology focused also makes the industry more attractive for young people who may be considering a career in the construction or surfacing industry. At a time when there’s a substantial skills shortage and a growing number of experienced operatives reaching retirement age, this is more important than ever. We have to get the next generation interested, and investing in technology and modernisation is a key way to make this possible.

By promoting innovation across the entire supply chain by investing in machinery from manufacturers that are willing to incorporate the latest technology into their products, we can make a huge difference and change the perceptions of people who think the industry is an unavoidable pollutant.

We need to be forward-thinking and willing to keep up with the latest technology, explore new ways of working and push for new machinery in a sector which many believe to be a dirty industry, devoid of technological advancement.

If companies are proactive when it comes to embracing the likes of autonomous paving and the ability to harmonise laptops and hand-held gadgets with the hardware on the carriageways, then the rest of the industry will follow suit. This in turn will make manufacturers be more likely to invest in more new, innovative technologies, improving the industry from the top down.

It’s time to make the most of innovations available and prove that it’s possible to reduce the carbon footprint of the industry and keep up with the times, whilst still improving services.

Bruce Spencer-Knott is Managing Director at Minster Group. Minster Group is an award-winning civil engineering group which includes Minster Surfacing and Alliance Recycling. Minster works nationwide on behalf of local authorities, major developers, national retailers, supply chain partners and the Ministry of Defence. Based in Lincolnshire, Minster Group is passionate about recycling and waste reduction and is dedicated to safer, cleaner, greener civil engineering.
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