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Rediscover Concrete

CAC speaks to environmental lobby about the concrete industry.

April 17, 2013  By Michael McSweeney

Some of you will no doubt have noticed that the Cement Association of
Canada is increasing its presence at several of these events – the
Pollution Probe Gala, the WWF Panda Ball, Pembina’s unGala and Lake
Ontario WaterKeepers to name a few.

Editor’s note: The following column is an excerpt from a speech given by Michael McSweeney, president of the Cement Association of Canada. The speech was given at the Environmental Defence Gala at The Eglinton Grand in Toronto on March 20 of this year:

Some of you will no doubt have noticed that the Cement Association of Canada is increasing its presence at several of these events – the Pollution Probe Gala, the WWF Panda Ball, Pembina’s unGala and Lake Ontario WaterKeepers to name a few. And you may be asking yourselves why?

Why would an industry association, probably relatively unknown to many in this audience, want visibility with the environmental community?


I’d like to answer that question by tying it to tonight’s theme of renewal. In fact, as you look at the small gift we left for you at your place setting, you will notice our “invitation” to “rediscover” concrete. Behind that message is our own story of renewal. “Rediscover concrete” is about learning to think about, communicate and apply sustainability in new ways in our industry. It’s an invitation to learn more about a material that plays an essential role in everyone’s lives and it is the beginning of a new journey for us as we re-examine, rediscover and renew our own vision of sustainability for cement and concrete.

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, cement is actually an ingredient of concrete.

Cement is the “glue” that binds sand, gravel and water together to make concrete. And so we are inviting you to “rediscover concrete” because concrete is the visible end-product of the cement value chain and the product you see in roads, bridges, buildings and all manner of infrastructure in our communities.

Globally, about three tons of concrete per year is produced for every man, woman and child on this earth. Only water is used in greater volume. Concrete is also perishable and very much a local product, typically travelling less than 150 kilometres to a project site. We like to think of concrete as an essential ingredient in a 100-mile infrastructure diet. There is a concrete facility (or several) very near where you live.

We need to think more about concrete, precisely because it is so ubiquitous. How do we measure the economic, social and environmental value of a substance so essential to modern economies and modern living? What role will concrete play in building a sustainable future? What issues must the cement and concrete industry address and what solutions can it provide to broader sustainability challenges?

These are questions we in our industry have been asking ourselves for many years. We know that they are difficult questions with no easy answers but our social licence to operate depends on our ability to respond.

For decades, our industry has invested tens of millions of dollars per year to become more efficient, cleaner, more transparent and increasingly focused on product-based solutions to sustainability challenges. We’re proud of the progress we’ve made. A modern cement plant is significantly cleaner, 20% more energy efficient and produces 20% less GHG than technology widely used only a couple of decades ago. We are much more active in the communities in which we operate. We are heavily invested in research, and alternative energy projects that promise to lead the next wave of environmental progress in our industry. And there is a raft of innovations – pervious pavement, ultra-high-performance concrete, carbon sequestering concrete blocks, air purifying concrete panels – which we are very excited about. Still, we know we have a long way to go.

Throughout this journey, we’ve learned many lessons and we’re still learning. One of the most important lessons is that sustainability is a collective challenge, one larger than any one sector that demands collective solutions. It’s a journey that will fail if taken alone. And so our invitation to “rediscover concrete” is not just about getting you to think more about our industry; it’s an invitation to work with us on this shared challenge. We’re ready to be proactive partners.

Another lesson is that sustainability is as much about socio-economic values and relationships as it is about the laws of nature. Solving sustainability challenges demands more than good science, more than rigorous data and analysis; it also demands humility and adaptability in the face of ever-evolving knowledge and ideals.

I am here today because we are ready to be learners. And because I know Environmental Defence and many of you are ready to be learners too.

As a start, I invite you to visit, our new portal on concrete’s contribution to sustainability that will be launched next month. There you will find a wealth of information on the sustainability of our industry, including links to the work that some of our members are engaged in with Environmental Defence on the Cornerstone Standards Council.

We believe that concrete will play an important role in building a sustainable future. In fact, we’re excited about where sustainability will take our society and our industry. With renewed energy and vigour, I hope you will work with us as we endeavour to understand and shape what our common sustainable future looks like.

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