Green future

The concrete jungles that are Australia’s major cities traditionally thrive on resource-heavy steel mesh reinforcement, but Fibercon offers a new solution by using recycled plastic fibre, Emesh, to reduce waste, costs and resources for concrete constructions.

From the footpaths that line suburbs to the sky-scraping obelisks that populate capital cities – the building blocks of concrete infrastructure are a designer’s dream, but for developers, can be a resourcing nightmare.

Although it seems concrete will continue to be a foundation of urban design for the foreseeable future, innovators like Fibercon have invested in alternative and sustainable technologies to reduce the environmental concerns that affect the construction industry.

Fibercon developed its Emesh technology in 2015, creating the plastic fibres from 100 per cent recycled polypropylene. For civil applications like drains, footpaths, bikeways and pavements, steel is still in use as a reinforcing mesh. Australian company Fibercon has found a way to replace this with recycled plastic fibres, called Emesh, to give footpaths more longevity.

It has been a five-year journey for Fibercon CEO Mark Combe, whose collaboration with Research and Development Manager Tony Collister sparked a three-year PhD program at James Cook University, leading researchers across the world to bring Emesh into reality.

Emesh has been used in a number of footpaths at the JCU campus in North Queensland and throughout some councils in Queensland, NSW and Victoria. It uses offcuts and plastics from industrial waste, which is then used to reinforce the concrete.

Using Emesh to reinforce concrete instead of traditional steel mesh has recycled 100 tonnes of plastic waste from councils along the eastern seaboard alone, but has also saved about 1588 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, 32,670 cubic metres of water and 318 tonnes of fossil fuels.

The industry award winning Emesh not only netted Fibercon recognition from Shell and the Australian Department of Industry, Innovation & Science, but also saw CEO Mark Combe named in the top 50 most innovative engineers of last year.

Mark says the project’s aim was to enter the recycling market and provide economic benefits, but sceptics were unsure it could be brought to fruition.

“It’s just good getting the recognition, knowing that we’re on the right track. We were told that it wasn’t going to be big enough and now we’re supplying huge councils all over Australia,” Mark says.

“The building industry talks about innovation, but it often doesn’t do it, so for us it’s pretty different, but it’s been a difficult road.”

As waste has become a larger issue in the Australian construction industry, Mark says that it’s not only the materials, but a waste of time, money, transport and traffic control.

“In the building industry there’s a phenomenal amount of waste, even in something simple like a footpath there’s got to be a better way. We’re trying to make things simple in a sustainable way,” Mark says.

The City of Charles Sturt in north-west Adelaide is the first council in South Australia to adopt the ‘green concrete’ alternative, after a recommendation from Hi Mix Concrete Business Development Manager Daniel Romano.

Daniel recommended the council use the Emesh concrete after construction firm Nova Group reached out to them to provide concrete for the St Clair Recreation and Adelaide Parklands Upgrade projects.

“When Adelaide based construction firm Nova Group came to us to supply concrete for a number of Charles Sturt Council projects, I recommended Emesh instead of the traditional steel reinforcement,” Daniel says.

“I called all around Australia looking for different prices because (plastic mesh) is quite expensive. Someone mentioned recycled plastic, so I started buying Emesh.

“I’m trying to push it more, once other councils hear about it, they’ll want to use it as well. It’s easier for the customer, it’s quicker and better for the environment.”

Hi Mix is a father-son operation established in 1989 and their willingness to adapt to new technologies like Fibercon’s Emesh is slowly spreading throughout Adelaide.

While Emesh has supported councils such as Charles Sturt with its $26.5 million St Clair Recreation project, Daniel says the new technology needs to be pushed further by concrete producers.

One core benefit Hi Mix found when applying the recycled plastic mesh was the time and resources saved in not having to cut steel mesh or manoeuvre mesh and bar chairs.

Mark says he was aiming to achieve something different in the construction industry.

“Usually sustainability comes at a cost, there’s the ‘green premium’, which isn’t the situation for Emesh. It actually works out cheaper and faster,” he says.

Looking to the future, Emesh is quickly becoming a big part of Fibercon’s business as they try to push their product deeper into the Australian market and into international territories.

As for the future of the company, Mark says he’d like to expand internationally as part of the vision of Emesh.