CSR and Community Relations in the Asphalt and Cement Industries

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Published on February 18, 2019, at 4:35 p.m.
by Julia Landon.

When it comes to corporate social responsibility, people mainly think about companies like Starbucks, which purchases “responsibly grown and fair trade” coffee, or Adidas, which consistently works with Parley for the Ocean. What most people don’t think about is CSR in the infrastructure construction industry — more specifically, the asphalt and cement industries.

Asphalt and cement are essential to everyday life. These two products form our roads and our sidewalks, yet neither one is thought of on a daily basis. It is important to understand these industries, even on a surface level because of the daily impact on human life, whether or not one lives in the same town as an asphalt or cement plant.

In order to clearly understand the situation, it is important to understand the basics of this industry. According to T. Carter Ross, the vice president for communications for the National Asphalt Pavement Association, asphalt is a mix of road and sand aggregates and liquid asphalt as a binder. Liquid asphalt is a byproduct of the oil refining process. Cement is a little more complicated, as it is commonly confused with concrete. Cement is “a powdery substance made with calcinated lime and clay,” but concrete is “a heavy, rough building material made from a mixture of broken stone or gravel, sand, cement, and water.”

It seems simple: Both asphalt and cement have gravel or some kind of mineral in them, and they are both used to pave roads. But there is so much more to them than meets the eye.

Corporate Social Responsibility 

One of the most common concerns for communicators for the asphalt and cement industry is environment-related. As stated earlier, the binder in asphalt is made of oil refining byproducts and cement is made by mining limestone. Cement is then mixed with water and other materials and heated to a very high temperature in a kiln to create concrete. Because of these aspects, the asphalt and cement industries have actively made efforts to properly educate the public about the environmental effects and what companies are doing to combat it.

Emissions, in particular, are a large part of the environmental concerns both the asphalt and cement industries are addressing, along with working toward lowering any emissions produced.

Asphalt raises many concerns when it comes to sustainability and care for the environment due to its derivation from fossil fuels. What isn’t commonly known is that once it is created, the environmental impact is very minimal.

Ross said that asphalt is “100-percent recyclable, [and] every old pavement can be used as raw materials for new pavements, and the carbon inherent in the pavement is effectively sequestered, removing it as a potential source of greenhouse gas emissions.”

“For something as ubiquitous as asphalt pavement, it’s amazing how much science, engineering and innovation go on with them. They’re constantly changing and evolving in materials and processes,” Ross said.

In the United States, the way cement plants are regulated as well as the difficulties getting construction permits makes it expensive to build new cement plants, Ryan Farr, the former corporate reliability manager for Ash Grove Cement Company, shares. This leads to many companies buying cement from overseas, where the environmental regulations are more relaxed and the manufacturing costs are cheaper.

Farr mentioned that the construction industry is more of an oligopoly, but that doesn’t stop consumers from looking for the lowest price. In this lowest price search, however, companies looking to purchase cement might purchase internationally, which shouldn’t be a big problem until one looks at the environmental implications of that decision.

For example, the manufacturing process for cement gives off NOx and SOx emissions and mercury, Farr said. Governmental regulations have reduced these emissions, and cement companies across the world have taken extra steps to reduce these emissions, such as using alternative processing methods.

The cement manufacturing process requires the use of a kiln, which typically uses coal to heat it. Some cement plants use waste-derived fuels such as tire-derived fuel TDF, Farr said.  Using the energy from tires keeps them from taking up space in landfills and reduces the use of coal.  Other waste products can include old computers (e-waste), used carpet, or diaper chips (the part where the leg goes in). Europe is further along than the US in terms of using waste-derived fuels.  Many cement kilns in Europe derive up to 50 percent of their fuel from waste products.

Community Relations 

Asphalt and cement also raise many concerns when it comes to building new plants. What isn’t well-known is that the companies make active efforts to become a part of the community in which the plant is located.

“They aren’t this weird place on the edge of town that makes some noise and makes it smell funny. They are part of the community. They’re doing work that helps you get to school, to work, to church, wherever,” Ross explained.

Ross further stated that company employees will participate in food drives and 5Ks and volunteer at schools and for various causes in the community. The companies and their employees “want to work to show people around them that they’re a responsible and integrated company, an important part of the community,” according to Ross.

When planning a cement plant, Ash Grove is not only trying to build a new plant but also trying to create wealth and employment opportunities for the people in the surrounding areas. Cement plants are put in places where there are enough raw materials to last 100 years, so “you’re not going in and trying to get rich quick and then just leaving the town stranded. You’re making more of a long-term investment in that particular area,” Farr said.

CSR and community relations seem to be two of the largest focal points of the asphalt and cement industries. The companies know they are not there to just exist, but rather to become a beneficial part of the community, whether it be through volunteering or providing jobs. In addition, they recognize the environmental concerns and are actively working to find new ways to continue the trade in a more environmentally friendly way.

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