Engineering sustainability: Rising to the challenge

Rising temperatures, flooding and wildfires – the climate challenge is becoming more and more evident, and with it the necessity for many industries to move to more sustainable practices. The engineering sector is no exception and while some resist, others are leading the way.

Dubbed by the Australian Financial Review as Australasia’s most innovative company, Aurecon works alongside its clients to co-create clever, innovative solutions to some of the world’s most complex challenges, adding value across the project lifecycle through deep technical and advisory expertise.

As the company’s sustainability associate for environmental and planning, Liz Root provides strategic delivery advice to clients, working with them to embed meaningful sustainable outcomes into infrastructure projects.

Setting the road ahead

“I think the fresh approach Aurecon brings is the way that we think about sustainability and the climate challenge,” says Root.

The scale of the challenge to go ‘green’ is what she believes most companies struggle with. The term ‘sustainability’ can be very broad, and easy to feel overwhelmed by the possibilities.

“Rather than taking a scatter gun approach or attempting to change everything at once, I think it’s really important for projects and organisations to identify some priority areas and focus on those.

“Work with your stakeholders to determine what is materially important to you, focus on delivering on those objectives and then track progress.”

Auckland City Rail Link

To help think about a future impacted by climate change, and the wide-ranging impacts and opportunities that present, Aurecon has tools and systems in place to help its team think about those implications and plan a response.

Aurecon’s ‘Futures Playbook’ is a set of plays, tools and processes used to explore and make sense of potential futures. Drawing on the fields of futures studies and strategic foresight – disciplines that focus on how to interpret, analyse and respond to the future – it is a series of tools that help organisations identify and categorise different drivers of change, identify impacts and implications, and ultimately identify actions to take.

“Frameworks and tools such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Green Star, Infrastructure Sustainability, and Passive House can provide some structure and direction to guide and verify your efforts,” says Root.

“I also think there is a common misconception that improving sustainability means adding cost. If you’re just adding cost, I don’t think you’re doing it right. Sustainable outcomes should add value, not just cost.

“Yes, there might be a bit of time investment upfront in working out how to do things better or smarter or more efficiently, but that will be gained back in measurable ways. We are all on a learning journey, so it’s about continually challenging and trying to do better.”

Changing reputations

Solo Plastic is another company leading by example to ‘do better’.

Designing, manufacturing and installing large-scale solutions in PE and PVC for the infrastructure of New Zealand, Solo’s vision is “fabricating for a better tomorrow”.

“Plastic has a ghastly reputation – one tied up in waste lying inert in landfills for thousands of years. However, there are plastics and there are plastics,” says Alan Sutcliffe, CEO at Solo Plastic.

“One is deserving of its appalling reputation, the plastic of single-use bags and those soft plastics that are tricky to recycle. The other is a strong, durable and, ultimately, easily recycled material ideal for a number of products.”

At Solo, high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which carries a Type 2 plastic code, is primarily used. According to Sutcliffe, it is one of the safest forms of plastic, solvent resistant and has high strength characteristics.

“To meet our strategies, Solo commits to taking clean HDPE waste from any source, chipping it and extruding it into pellets for re-use into new products suitable for non-virgin material.”

The company is committed to recycling 100% of all HDPE waste produced internally, and last month the total of plastic recycled for the year was up to 113 tonnes since January 2020.

A circular economy

Having recycled 99.987% of all material accumulated last year within the business, this is also a strategy seen by Phoenix Metal Recyclers and Metalman.

The company’s goal is to make recycling more accessible to Kiwis, more convenient, fast and efficient. And its multi-site, nationwide approach is making this possible.

Phoenix Metalman Wynyard Wharf demolition

“By processing recyclables, we are reducing raw materials from being mined, saving natural habitats and forests. Recycling metals emits 80% less CO2 than metal production from those raw materials,” says Hilary West-Reeve, Phoenix Metal Recyclers and Metalman’s head of sustainability.

As well as continuing its regular recycling efforts, this year Phoenix Metalman exported New Zealand’s first shipment equivalent to 900,000+ single-use Alkaline Zinc Carbon type batteries (AA, AAA, etc) for recycling.

The ‘Alkaline Mixed Metal Dust’, including zinc and manganese, is recovered to create a fertiliser micronutrient which offers “significant environmental benefits and sustainable outcomes”.

“Field testing trials of the fertiliser blends containing these micronutrients confirmed the uptake of the manganese was in line and in many cases superior to commercially available fertilisers,” says West-Reeve.

“Rather than be consigned to landfill where they are potentially an environmental hazard, these batteries can be recycled to produce materials that benefit the environment by improving crop yields. It would be great if we could create the infrastructure here in New Zealand to achieve similar outcomes.”

A commitment to a circular economy is certainly going to continue playing a major part in the industry’s move to a greener future, and West-Reeve believes that this need for metals recycling will only grow with the increasing global demand and switch to more sustainable EAF manufacturing techniques.

The future is bright

“The drive towards net zero is going to require transformation in vertical building, transport and energy, and with our natural curiosity, creativity, and ability to innovate, engineers and constructors have a critical role to play,” says Aurecon’s Liz Root, who highlights that there are both macro societal changes and micro shifts that need to happen if we are to retain our ecosystems for the planet’s health and wellbeing.

“It’s exciting to see already how our engineering teams are really starting to apply that sustainability and carbon ‘lens’ to their designs, so they are considering material choice and sustainability alongside traditional factors such as strength and durability.

“What’s important is that we maintain momentum and continue to challenge ourselves to do better.”