Products that create sustainable infrastructure

Infrastructure

We want our steel to become the first-choice material for public bodies who commission and approve construction projects, and the firms that design and build them, because they know that steel is part of the answer for a low-carbon circular economy, and not part of the problem.

Clearing the air: new products for indoor environments

The air we breathe may look clear but it also can be filled with invisible gases known as volatile organic compounds (or VOCs). Not only can these have a direct negative effect on our health but they are also an important contributor to global warming through the effect on the composition of our earth’s atmosphere. VOCs come from a multitude of sources – one example is as a by-product of painting and coating operations.

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Governments and regulators clearly want more done to eradicate VOCs, with new legislation in France, Belgium and Germany in the last year. The specific challenge here is that VOCs evaporate into the air at comparatively low temperatures, which makes them a particular problem indoors, and even more so in poorly ventilated areas, where they can concentrate up to ten times more than normal.

The steel used for a building’s structure is not a problem for indoor environments, since the bare or metallic coated steels used emit no VOCs. Our focus has been on the pre-painted steels that are used in internal facades. After three years of detailed research, work with a consortium of partner companies and universities, and the financial support of the French government, our plant in Montataire, France, has started producing a pioneering new pre-painted steel which emits extremely low levels of VOCs, and is specially designed to be used indoors. It’s a great example of the value that working together across different sectors can bring to the development of genuinely innovative products.

The new steel, Estetic® Bio Air, was launched in late 2015. It’s completely free of chromates and heavy metals, and features a coating made entirely of plant-based resin. The aim is to use the product in ceilings, walls and partitions, and also in spaces that need to be especially clean, such as medical or forensic facilities. Estetic® Bio Air has already been awarded green certifications in Germany and Belgium, and has France’s A+ label for interior air quality, as well as its own Health Product Declaration.

Looking ahead, we plan to use the same coating system for all the products in our Estetic® range. This will involve building the capacity of our specialist suppliers to apply the same process to other products and so enable us to meet the rising demand for green steels that we anticipate.

Steel goes circular: re-using sheet piles

We see the emerging circular economy as a major commercial opportunity for us, as well as a significant contributor to a more sustainable future. In Europe, for example, McKinsey estimates that only 5% of the value of raw materials the global economy uses is recovered through recycling. Imagine the impact if the other 95% could be recovered too.

The challenge is that it’s often easier and cheaper to throw products away and start again, rather than repair or re-use them.

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This is as true of domestic appliances like washing machines as it is of components for infrastructure or construction. So what’s the solution? One answer, certainly, is for customers to rent or lease products, rather than buy them. And we’re testing the opportunity with one particular product – the sheet pile.

Sheet piles are used in construction, to provide earth or water retention in the foundations of buildings, roads, tunnels, or seawalls. Generally made from recycled scrap, they can also, like all steel products, be fully recycled, saving 1.29 tonnes of co2 for every tonne of steel made. Because of this, high-strength steel sheet piles already offer a more sustainable alternative to concrete. The lease model takes this one step further, since the sheet piles can be re-used rather than recycled once the customer has finished their construction project. It means that, rather than selling the sheet piles, we can offer our customers their availability for a period of time. It’s a win-win for everyone: a reduced short-term cost for the customer, a stream of recurrent revenue for us, and a significant benefit for the environment in the long term.