Alex Fraser: recycling through the ages

As Alex Fraser celebrates its 140th anniversary, Waste Management Review details the company’s efforts to become one of Australia’s leading providers of recycled construction materials.

Not many Australian companies have 140 years of operation behind them. Such a milestone is even more extraordinary when you consider the enormous changes that have occurred over the past century – from two world wars to some of the most challenging economic recessions.

Alex Fraser is one organisation that recently hit that 140-year milestone, attributing its long history of success to investment in its people and its business. As a result, the company was able to swiftly respond to major shifts in material usage and keep pace with changing community expectations.

While the company is synonymous with building a sustainable construction sector, its humble beginnings were in the metals sector.

In 1879, Alex Fraser was a founding member of a metal broker firm, in Queen Street, Melbourne, run by the Melbourne Metal Exchange (MME).

With the price of metal fluctuating on an almost daily basis, Fraser and his fellow MME members controlled the entire output from Barrier Mines as well as other important mines throughout the country with silver, lead, zinc and tin the principle metals.

In the early 1920s, Fraser made the decision to retire and return to his country of birth, leaving the business to a clerk employed with the company – Archibald McKellar. McKellar’s 11 years with the business helped him grow the business throughout the Great Depression and eventually take over as owner.

With the passing of McKellar Snr, his son Archie took over after World War II in the 1950s. Margins were difficult at the time and with stiff competition in the tin and lead business, McKellar Jnr set looked for new opportunities, starting with the demolition and recycling of metal from returned fighter jets and tanks from the war.

Many of these initial opportunities saw Alex Fraser become a pioneer in commercial recycling, including plastics and dry nylon recycling. During the 60s and 70s, demolitions became a prominent activity for Alex Fraser and by the late 70s, its primary industry.

The early 80s marked the beginning of a new age in Alex Fraser’s recycling story as it embarked on one of its most ambitious projects yet. Led by Jamie McKellar and his brothers Robert and Peter, the family’s third generation began to transform large quantities of construction and demolition (C&D) waste, like concrete, asphalt, brick and stone, into new construction resources such as aggregates and roadbase.

With the establishment of its first concrete recycling site in Port Melbourne, Alex Fraser started to grow its employee base from an initial few to more than 260 across five recycling plants in Queensland and Victoria.

Alex Fraser Asphalt was launched in the 1990s. It quickly expanded to include two high-capacity asphalt plants on opposite ends of Melbourne’s metro area and five asphalt crews renowned for their quality workmanship and reliability.

Together, Alex Fraser’s recycling and asphalt operations work with local governments, contractors and asset owners to build greener roads throughout Melbourne and Brisbane, reducing the carbon footprint of construction by up to 65 per cent.

DEVELOPING A REPUTATION

One of its biggest milestones arose in 1992, when governments, councils and contractors began to recognise and support the use of recycled C&D. Alex Fraser worked closely with government to develop VicRoads specifications. These specifications have been periodically updated and set an outstanding example of government agencies supporting the use of recycled content.

Alex Fraser went from strength to strength, winning the Western Ring Road and Albert Park Grand Prix track projects and laying the foundations of Melbourne’s Crown Casino. As of 1987, it was responsible for almost half of Victoria’s C&D recycling effort.

By 2008, Alex Fraser became a major recycling enterprise, having produced 20 million tonnes of sustainable construction materials. Peter Murphy, who has been with Alex Fraser for more than 15 years, transitioned the company into its next phase of growth, stepping up to the role of Managing Director in 2011 after the company changed hands to John Swire & Sons.

Peter’s background in logistics drove Alex Fraser’s commitment to reliability, ensuring responsive delivery to its valued customers. He and his team consistently benchmark locally and internationally which has helped foster a culture of innovation and best practice at Alex Fraser.

Peter led the establishment of a network of world class recycling facilities, and spearheaded Alex Fraser’s innovative recycled glass projects.

Fast forward to 2019 and Alex Fraser’s notable achievements span turning glass into construction sand, converting historically landfilled concrete into recycled aggregates and roadbase, and using a wide variety of recyclables in its quality asphalt mixes, including recovered asphalt, glass and plastics.

It is now responsible for producing up to four million tonnes of sustainable construction material per annum, recovering millions of tonnes of demolition and glass waste and paving more than 1000 kilometres of green roads every year.

This year the company is in the midst of commissioning a world-first glass recycling plant and new high recycled technology asphalt plant, doubling the volume of recycled sand produced in Victoria while drastically increasing the volume of recycled materials incorporated in its asphalt mixes.

Peter credits the company’s innovation and agility to its people who are always looking for the next improvement, and to strengthen long-term relationships with customers and regulators.

“We work hard to provide reliable services, so our customers can get their projects done on time, on spec and on budget. On all our customer projects, supply timelines are integral to performance. If we can give them a high volume of consistent material, their project will be more efficient,” Peter explains.

He says that it was rewarding to see the efforts of Alex Fraser’s people recognised last year with the company winning the Waste and Recycling Award at the Victorian Transport Association Australian Freight Industry Awards.

“The prize commended our game-changing glass recycling operation that diverted hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste from landfill and provides resources that are badly needed to fulfil Victoria’s multi-billion-dollar infrastructure pipeline,” Peter says.

“It also substantially reduces heavy vehicle movements. There’s plenty of talk about recycling lately. We’ve been doing it for a long time on a large scale and have continued to innovate and invest.”

R&D CONTINUES

Of course, none of Alex Fraser’s achievements would be possible without its continued efforts to improve the end markets for recycled materials. The company conducts ongoing research and development with partners including CSIRO, Australian Road Research Board, Melbourne’s RMIT, Melbourne University and Swinburne University. Testing over an extended period on materials and pavements demonstrates that recycled aggregate matches, if not exceeds, the performance of the equivalent virgin material.

Part of its ongoing work is liaising with individual local government areas and businesses to educate them on the environmental and commercial benefits of using recycled material.

Peter says that as natural resources deplete and quarries move further afield, transport costs increase sharply.  Recycled materials are not only a sustainable option, but often the most economical.

Alex Fraser’s desire to benchmark recycled materials led to a decision to partner with RMIT Centre of Design and conduct a life-cycle analysis of its recycling operation compared with a quarrying operation.

In May 2008, the results of the RMIT research were released indicating the carbon footprint of recycled crushed concrete is 65 per cent less than equivalent quarried material. These findings have subsequently been independently verified in accordance with international standard ISO14040.

“Demand is increasing and the constant challenge is to ensure that all of these major projects happening across the country are aware of sustainable alternatives,” Peter says.

“The consistent quality, compaction, transport and density benefits of recycled construction materials are well recognised as presenting substantial savings to construction costs, so they are well supported across the sector.”

He says that Alex Fraser’s recycled road base and aggregates comply with road building authorities’ specifications, such as VicRoads and Queensland’s Department of Transport and Main Roads, and the vast majority of local governments also support the use of recycled content.

“VicRoads has a strong track record of choosing recycled materials for some of its biggest projects, including the M1 and M80,” Peter says.

Last year, Alex Fraser developed PolyPave™ – a high-performing asphalt product containing recycled materials, including plastic, glass and RAP. Melbourne’s City of Yarra was the first of many councils to incorporate the new material in its roads through a resurfacing project in late 2018.

Peter says that Alex Fraser has been planning for the long term and sets a very high benchmark in operating standards for its sites.

“This includes ensuring our operations are ‘not seen and not heard’ through extraordinary measures to address air quality management, acoustics, traffic and visual amenity as well as constantly working to reduce the carbon footprint of our own operations and our customers’.”

Alex Fraser’s original Laverton site in the 1980s.

POSITIONED FOR GROWTH

Alex Fraser was last year acquired by construction and building material supplier Hanson Australia. Complementing Alex Fraser’s unique sustainability offering is Hanson’s technical expertise, sophisticated systems and large site network.

Peter says that Hanson’s ownership strengthens the viability of recycled materials, with great synergies between the two businesses.

“We are working together to improve efficiencies at Alex Fraser and Hanson, including recycling Hanson materials.”

As for the future of Alex Fraser? The company has continued to invest and aims to expand its capabilities with new materials and new locations.

“The new integrated facility at Laverton is a demonstration of a thriving circular economy at work. It has answered a long-standing question around how successfully waste materials can be recycled into quality resources for greener roads.”

Peter says that Alex Fraser will continue to be agile, evolving its business to align with community needs as it works towards another prosperous 140 years.

Related stories:

Concrete jungle: Lincom Group

Lincom Group’s Concrete Washout Reclaim plant is allowing recyclers to recover sand, water and aggregates for reuse while reducing waste storage areas and handling costs. 

Recovering sand, water and aggregates for beneficial reuse and minimising waste storage and handling costs have been on the agenda of Lincom Group over the past year.

The materials processing equipment specialist recently created a new division – environment and process – to go beyond its capabilities and establish a strong position in the water filtration and water management sector.

Pete Godwin, previously an independent filtration and dewatering consultant, was brought on full-time to lead Lincom’s new environment and process division as manager. Pete says that developing a product with Lincom allows it to service a greater proportion of the market.

“We’re doing something very separate and distinct from the normal sand and aggregates business. The solutions our new division offers are appropriate not just for sand and aggregates, but we’re now servicing a much wider market in food, wastewater treatment, tailings, minerals and a variety of other areas,” Pete explains.

After extensive research and testing, the company developed its concrete washout reclaim system – a Rapid Reclaimer and OFS filter press. The winningcombination allows concrete recyclers to capture clean sand, aggregates and water for further reuse.

Lincom Group recently put on a demonstration day at the Firth Concrete yard in February in Auckland – the largest national manufacturer of ready mixed concrete.

The well attended demonstration allowed attendees to gain a close-up glimpse of the Lincom concrete washout reclaim system.

Pete says feedback from customers was highly positive with a significant number of New Zealand and Australian customers impressed with its capabilities. He says customers were particularly drawn to the high quality of water.

Notably, Pete says the system reduces the footprint for concrete reclaim significantly.

“The reclaimer was around 30 years ago and the world seemed to lost interest for a time, but right now it’s on the top of everyone’s list,” Pete says.

“The prices of real estate in New Zealand and Sydney are a big driver for this because they can get more work out of a much smaller yard by having just a filter press and a reclaimer.

“If it costs one or two million for a block of land in Auckland, you can take a third of that off because of more efficient use of space.”

The Germany-designed and manufactured OFS recessed chamber filter press uses a proved solid/liquid separation technology. Unlike a traditional settling pond system with its large footprint, the filter press is a much more compact solution where the dirty water is pumped from the agitated storage pond, through the press, then back into a clean water pit.

“The rain that falls from the sky ends up going through the same process so it’s a big general clean-up of the area. Concrete plants spend all day hosing due to the dust created and they use large quantities of water to allay the dust,” Pete explains.

“We’ve reduced the dust from breaking up dry waste concrete. If you can reclaim the concrete at its wet stage there is no dust generated, so environmentally that’s a good thing.”

Pete says that concrete plants used to have large settling ponds that would take up excessive amounts of space with cement and stone settling to the bottom. After a week, they would pump out the water and recover sand and aggregates that emerged as a waste product.

He says the reclaimer has a better washing capability than other competitors and places solids into two distinct piles. Other machines may use one pile.

“When the aggregates come out, they are clean. If I pick up a handful of aggregate, there is no colour on my hand – it’s just clean water.”

The rapid concrete washout reclaim unit takes the waste concrete and deconstructs it back into base sand and aggregate components.

The OFS filter system recovers grey water by filtering and compressing dewatered cement fines into manageable “cake” form, solving a variety of issues for concrete producers.

The rapid reclaimer is capable of processing up to 20 cubic metres of concrete slurry per hour.

The reclaimer discharges the cementitious water into the dirty water pit where it’ss continually stirred to keep the spent cement fine particles in suspension. The clean water, known as filtrate, is captured and returned to a clean water pit for use in further concrete batches and reuse in the reclaimer’s washing and separation process.

Sand and aggregates are separated within the reclaimer, with the dewatered sand conveyed by twin hydraulic screws to one pile, while the washed aggregates exit via a belt conveyor to another separate pile. The cementitious water overflows the adjustable weirs and is piped via gravity to an agitated storage pond.

At the end of the cycle, filter cakes fall into the void below the filter press where they are removed as waste or for beneficial reuse.

In tailings and water management, Pete also predicts that centrifuges will continue to garner additional interest in waste and recycling applications into the future, as they are traditionally being used by many major water authorities at this time.

Related stories: