Circular thinking on our motorways
Motorway crash barriers are one of those things that we see, yet don’t see. They perform a vital role but, rather like electricity pylons, are so ubiquitous that most of us never give them a passing thought. Unless you are Scottish businessman Geoff Crowley that is. Geoff has spent the last 20 years thinking about motorway crash barriers and how to stop the huge waste that happens when the rust sets in and they are scrapped.
His company, Highland Galvanizers, is pioneering a new way of extending the lifespan of these essential, yet often invisible, pieces of infrastructure, preventing significant unnecessary waste and potentially making huge savings to the public purse.
How does your circular model operate?
Made of steel, the barriers, or the ‘vehicle restraint system’, as they are officially known, begin life with a protective galvanized coating of zinc alloy to prevent rust. This coating lasts between 25 and 30 years at the roadside, where it slowly oxidizes until all the zinc disappears, exposing the steel – at which point the barrier needs to be replaced.
Except now they don’t, thanks to Geoff and his company, Highland Galvanizers. The company has pioneered a way of re-coating the barriers before the rust sets in, so that the steel is preserved and can remain in use for at least another 25 years. By extending the lifespan of the crash barriers through re-use and refurbishment, this process embodies a key circular economy principle: the need to keep the things we need in productive use for as long as possible.
“Galvanizing is the most cost-effective corrosion protection for steel, with corrosion currently costing the UK 4% of GDP - as old barriers are scrapped and new ones made,” says Geoff, “and there’s a massive 89% reduction in CO2 emissions by recoating the steel rather than scrapping and replacing it.”
The re-coated steel has the same strength and safety properties as a new barrier. Not only this: due to an inspection and assessment programme, and the ability to replace damaged barriers from a stock of re-coated barriers, the infrastructure of the Scottish road network will be much improved.
The benefits of this idea seem clear, but persuading others to leave behind the use and replace linear way of doing things, to move to a more circular mindset has been quite a long road.
“It’s taken over four years of many meetings and presentations, backed by a regime of testing and proving to finally get the green light to put this new approach into action, with test areas and now a large-scale trial,” explains Geoff.
Huge savings to be made
Highland Galvanizers have made a big breakthrough, with Transport Scotland, the national agency with responsibility for the road network, backing a regional trial of its more circular system. The trial is taking place on barriers in the south east of Scotland during 2018, with the potential to roll it out across the rest of the country. “We’ve calculated there are huge savings to be made if this new circular economy-inspired system is adopted across the whole network, both financially and in terms of CO2” said Geoff.
For other businesses looking to pursue circular economy projects, there are lessons to be learned from Geoff’s experience of getting this project off the ground. “I would say that perseverance is probably the most important thing when you are trying to introduce a circular concept that is likely to be completely new. People generally have quite a strong resistance to change which can be off-putting, but you need to just keep going.” Geoff’s other tips to circular economy SMEs are also worth bearing in mind:
Find an internal champion:
“Identify someone who is receptive to your idea in the organisation you need to reach. We found our champion at a key contractor to Transport Scotland who was able to give us an insight into how best to approach the decision-makers there.”
Be persistent but don’t become a nuisance:
“It’s important to strike a balance between giving your prospect enough time to consider your idea, keeping in touch so they don’t forget you while being careful not to hound them, which is usually counter-productive.”
Look at it from their perspective:
“What you and your prospective client think is the killer benefit, might not be the same. For example, while financial savings are always important, other benefits such as CO2 emission reductions could be the thing that currently drives their thinking.”