Constructing a circular economy

Hannah Boxall looks at infrastructure services company FM Conway to find out how it is building up its recycling portfolio.

Constructing a circular economy
FM Conway's recycling yard at its Dartford headquarters

They always seem to be doing roadwork just when you need to get to work on time, but, let’s face it, the construction industry is absolutely essential, and what’s more, has the capability to recycle enormous quantities of resources.

FM Conway, a ‘family business’ (and no relation to Conwy, left), is proving just that by recycling 98 per cent of its waste and aiming for zero waste status. The business, run by Michael Conway, whose father founded the company, laid over 50 kilometres of kerb in the last 12 months, primarily in London and the South East.

FM Conway lays claim to some impressive figures: it recycles 450,000 tonnes of aggregate from highway work and reclaims a further 250,000 tonnes from roadwork, generating about 700,000 tonnes of material for reuse each year.

Constructing a circular economy

Development Director David Smith explains the company’s approach to sustainability: “Our mission is to educate local authorities as to what the true scope of recycling can be and how they can get more value out of every pound that they spend by investing in the circular economy and recovering their material – knowing what materials they’ve got – knowing how best they can reuse it in all aspects.”

The business has been recycling for over 20 years, the first aspect of which was building a drainage treatment plant that takes gully waste: “[The plant] separates out fine sands, which we then use in the manufacture of concrete”, says Smith. “The oil goes off to be recycled by a specialist contractor. We re-circulate the water, to be used in our aggregate washing plant. The organic matter goes off to another subcontractor, who then biodegrades it into compost.”

The approach is helped by the financial imperative to recycle in the aggregate business; Smith explains: “If you take a line from the Wash in Lincolnshire straight down to the Bristol Channel, south of that line there is very little construction aggregates that are suitable for making asphalt. In the South East, there is no crushed rock available at all, so we have to import everything – either from within the UK or the near Continent and Scandinavia. So there is an economic argument for recycling, as well as the environmental credential.”

This article was taken from Issue 84

The aggregate washing plant is where material removed from the road is crushed, washed and made into the granular layer used at the bottom of road construction. “We also went on to manufacture our own asphalt, because we have a policy of self-delivery, whereby we try to reuse as much of everything as possible and manufacture for ourselves everything that we consume.” FM Conway optimises its recycling capabilities by first taking samples to identify the asphalt’s characteristics. Removed material is taken to storage to “assess the quality of the material, quarantine any of that which is not of the highest value and select the value of the materials to make sure that it is going back into the best use”.

New projects include working to recycle the skid- resistant surface of high-speed roads (a ‘very special aggregate’ that is a ‘scarce resource’), and a large-scale trial with Transport for London to incorporate recycled material in the upper surface of high-speed roads.

Smith adds that FM Conway has a considerable research and development budget, allocating around £500,000 to investigate various aspects of recycling. It is conducting research with universities from the UK and the US to look at the characteristics of a material once it has been recycled. “If you simply recycle the asphalt once, all you’re doing is deferring the cost, you’re not actually going to be able to reuse it in 10-20 years’ time when it has to come up again”, he explains.

The main barrier, though, is a reluctance to use recycled materials: “There is very much a view that recycled is secondhand and therefore inferior both in terms of price and quality. That is not the case – recycled materials are equally, if not more important than primary aggregates.” Despite this, FM Conway is certainly on the road to cementing zero waste.