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TenCate Geosynthetics offers sustainable, durable and resource-efficient products and participates actively in research on recycling and degradable raw materials, Jürgen Gruber, Director of Marketing & Sales EMEA, reports in the interview.

In which way does the geosynthetics industry overall, and TenCate Geosynthetics in particular, contribute to achieving the current sustainability goals for Europe? 

Jürgen Gruber: The European Union´s primary objective is to achieve CO2 neutrality by 2050. A recently defined interim goal is to reduce CO2 emissions by 40% by 2030. The current energy revolution and shift in vehicles from fossil fuels to electric motors pays tribute to the pursuit of this goal. 

At present the construction industry is not a priority for politics even though it accounts for 38% of global carbon emissions. Moreover, there is insufficient differentiation within the construction industry itself as to which building materials and construction methods support the sustainability goals, and which do not. 

The infrastructure solutions with geosynthetics have proven themselves to be exceptionally durable and energy-efficient as well as sparing CO2 emissions. We offer the policy makers technologies for the construction industry that have been tested for years and serve the purpose of CO2 neutrality. 

The functional lifespan of geosynthetics amounts to 100 years and more. This is another huge benefit compared to other building materials, which must be reinstalled and recycled after 20 or 25 years of use. 

With sustainable, energy-efficient and CO2 emission-sparing geosynthetics, the construction industry embraces technologies that contribute to CO2 neutrality.

Jürgen Gruber, Director Marketing & Sales EMEA

For which sub-processes in the production and application of geosynthetics does this hold true? 

Jürgen Gruber: This assertion applies to the production of building materials, the construction of the structure and the lifetime of the infrastructure object. There are even specific concepts for the reinstallation of the structure as well as the separation and reuse of the individual components. 

Geosynthetics are recycled using state of the art technology and at present, mainly by thermal recovery. This means that the material can be separated from the soil after its lifespan. The geosynthetics from our company are recovered thermally. The result is usable energy – e.g. for heating or other purposes that would otherwise involve fossil fuels. 

From our point of view, this is a useful but not, as yet, an ideal solution. As an industry, we try to ensure that the products are refurbished and brought back into the circle economy after the reinstallation of structures so that they can be used again for similar products. Experts address this issue within the framework of the project „Missing Link“ by the “Kunststoff-Cluster Oberösterreich” (synthetics cluster of Upper Austria). We have been involved in this cluster, as an active partner, for many years.

In the public eye, microplastics are a big issue. Why are TenCate Geosynthetics’ products part of the solution, and not part of the problem? 

Jürgen Gruber: In 99% of all cases, our geosynthetic products are subjected to static loads in structures, meaning that no mechanical action can dissolve microplastics out of the geosynthetic. Chemical stresses in contact with the soil, which would impair the condition of the geosynthetic, are also barred. 

In my view, there is a need to broaden the discussion about microplastics. A key source for microplastics is tyre wear, for instance during the transportation of building materials to the construction site. There are numerous case studies which show that due to their multifunctionality, geosynthetics require less transportation effort than competing construction methods.

Comparative calculations regarding the base course construction of road objects impressively show the reduction of transport capacities to less than 1/100 when using synthetic layers instead of additional mineral layers. 

Tyre wear itself accounts for more microplastics than the geosynthetic could cause if it dissolved – which does not even happen: If a geosynthetic is reinstalled within a structure after several decades of functionality, its condition is still the same as at the beginning.

Which effect does the use of geosynthetics have on overall CO2-emissions? 

Jürgen Gruber: Studies by the “ETH Zurich” University prove that constructions with geosynthetics lead to a reduction of CO2 emissions by 80-85%. At the same time, 70-75% less energy is required. These numbers concern the comparison with conventional construction methods. 

What are the alternatives to geosynthetics? 

Jürgen Gruber: Doing without geosynthetics means using more natural resources, like gravel and sand, as well as accepting excruciatingly long transport routes. Chemical binders represent another alternative in the form of cement and lime in the case of poorly stable soils. 

In this, all of the advantages named with regard to environmental soundness are unexploited as is the opportunity for a closed circular economy following the period of use of a structure. 

What makes geosynthetics environmentally safe? 

Jürgen Gruber: Our geosynthetics must pass an environmental test to prove their harmlessness: They are soaked in water for a longer period of time and checks verify whether substances dissolve out of the product. The limits for drinking water are used for the evaluation. 

As to sustainability, does TenCate Geosynthetics do anything in a different way to other manufacturers? 

Jürgen Gruber: Being a market leader, we need to be a pioneer when it comes to important issues. We want to actively shape the future and therefore invest in research for better solutions. We participate in working groups and try to get the message across to the market that there are construction materials which, to a large extent, already fulfill everything we want to achieve by 2050 – which is climate neutrality. Operationally, our goal is to manufacture in a way which spares as much waste as possible. 

In this way, semi-finished products or parts for our packaging are made out of our synthetics waste. Within the standard limits, we gradually mix our waste into the products. 

What future potential does the geosynthetics industry hold for this? 

Jürgen Gruber: Research is currently going on into recycling possibilities that make the products 100% reusable for the manufacturing of geosynthetics. 

The use of biodegradable raw materials is another topic with a huge potential: Biodegradable yarns made of corn or sugar can be reused. However, this merely works for products with a short lifetime. Infrastructure objects – especially those in civil engineering – are designed for a lifespan of 60 to 120 years.

Biodegradables could work in niche applications though, where the products are freely exposed to the weather. Glacier protection, with a product lifetime of 3 to 5 years due to direct UV exposure, would be a possible field of application. We are also about to find out which biodegradable fibers and yarns are worth considering for industrial use in the agricultural sector. This concerns the covering of beets or straw to maximize durability and the shelf life. 

Besides, there is a trend towards the increased reuse of recyclates. The European standard justifiably limits the use due to quality concerns. We want to do our bit and help by promoting knowledge and improving quality criteria. 

What are TenCate Geosynthetics´ next steps? 

Jürgen Gruber: For me, the most important task for the geosynthetic industry is to show our important contribution to sustainability in a simple and comprehensible way for the decision-makers in politics.

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Jürgen Gruber, Director Marketing & Sales EMEA

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