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Geosynthetics and sustainability: How is our industry doing?

Geosynthetics industry leaders strive toward a highly sustainable future for geosynthetics, from the source to the end use of products.

Features | April 1, 2022 | By: Boyd Ramsey

FIGURE 1 Water, necessary for human life, should be stored in a sustainable manner, protecting both surface and groundwater resources. Geosynthetics, including the geomembrane used to line this pond, further such goals.

Sustainability is a complex issue, but there are some very simple and direct truths about it. The world’s population is nearly 8 billion people; while the population growth rate has slowed in recent years, the earth’s population continues to rise. There are simply not sufficient resources to provide for the number of people on the planet if we continue our historical patterns of consumption. Throughout the course of modern history, humans have taken resources from the ground, seas and Earth’s crust (lumber, oil, minerals, fish, animals, etc.), used what we wanted, threw away the waste (regularly contaminating water and land) and continued to devour our planet at an unsustainable rate (Figure 1). Harari (2015) provides an excellent overview of the near-constant environmental catastrophes, destruction of ecosystems, extinction of other species and generally awful things humanity has done to the earth. If humankind continues with the behaviors we have exhibited, we will destroy the planet to the extent that it will not support human life—certainly not in the numbers we now have. 

Humankind must change our behaviors (what and how we mine, farm, shop, eat and, more generally, live our lives). This extends to waste disposal as well: Landfilling much less, recycling and reusing more, and probably most importantly, finding better and smarter ways to reduce consumption of raw materials and resources. This change is needed on a global scale involving things like CO2 emissions, the dispersal of disposable plastics and chemicals into the environment, and the continued decline of forests, waterways and air quality. This change is needed on an individual scale—what you personally buy and consume, and how you dispose of your waste (recycling and reusing whatever possible). 

Economic systems (including capitalism) also need to change to support and motivate these alterations in our behaviors. Our current economic system rarely assigns values that reflect the true and inclusive cost of items: their creation, environmental impact, duration of utility, and costs and impacts of disposal. In some egregious cases, such as vehicle tires, we are starting to deal with this (the process is named Extended Producer Responsibility [EPR]) (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2001), and the updated version (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2016). Another excellent commentary on this topic is in Sandel (2012). In the geosynthetics field, these phenomena display themselves in abandoned mines, tailings dams, fertilizer production sites and other sites that the geosynthetics industry regularly works with in cleanup and site stabilization (Figure 2). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program addresses this sort of behavior: humans leaving a stain on the earth in the name of manufacturing and progress and those who have profited from the use of these resources leaving desolated and environmentally depleted sites, some having declared (legal) bankruptcy and avoided financial responsibility.

FIGURE 2 The author at a geosynthetic-covered hazardous waste site in Paducah, Ky.: Part of sustainability is keeping humanity’s waste from fouling the earth’s environment.

Part of the good news is that humankind is changing, developing plans and programs for improving sustainable behaviors (Figure 3). The United Nations Division for Sustainable Development Goals (DSDG) has a comprehensive set of Sustainable Development Goals (United Nations 2022). The United Nations (2015) adopted “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” which provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which are an urgent call to action by the 193 signatory countries—developed and developing—in a global partnership. Goals 1 and 2 address poverty and starvation: A hungry person is interested in obtaining food and not likely to worry about the long-term impacts to the environment. This extends into goals 3 and 4: good health and well-being, and quality education. Geosynthetics apply particularly to goal 3, and they significantly contribute to other goals (clean water, affordable energy and more efficient infrastructure [goals 7 and 9, respectively]), and sustainable cities and communities, and responsible consumption and production (goals 11 and 12), as well as other goals. The International Geosynthetics Society (IGS) and other industry organizations have published about how geosynthetics support this effort. 

FIGURE 3 (top and bottom [L to R]) The current human economy is linear and unsustainable, a recycling economy is progress, and a circular economy is our target for sustainable behaviors. Illustration courtesy Niamh Pearce

The IGS website contains a dedicated page to this topic (International Geosynthetics Society 2021). The website also includes a series of “Did You Know” pamphlets, each highlighting a contribution of geosynthetics toward the U.N.’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Further, the IGS has adopted the “IGS Sustainability Statement,” which provides goals, guidelines and targets for the organization in improving sustainability. While this addresses the organization itself, the IGS has also sent communications to all IGS members urging “leadership in sustainable practices” (Yoo 2022). This document begins with the following paragraphs:

The circular economy, sustainable infrastructure and responsible business are more important than ever. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), [and] changing investor requirements and consumer expectations are driving change in companies’ and individuals’ activities and behavior. 

Geosynthetics are well positioned for this change. They provide benefits that are not only economic, but sustainable in all key regards: energy savings, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, durability and total [life-span] analysis. They also deliver sustainable outcomes for communities through water preservation, prevention of coastal erosion, avoidance of pollution and more resilient infrastructure.

The letter continues to recommend practices for IGS member companies, including the creation of individual company policies and goals on sustainability/environmental practices. Several resources are available for this, including the International Organization for Standardization (2015), a comprehensive document and program. The International Organization for Standardization document states that an environmental management system (EMS) is “a system and database which integrates procedures and processes for training of personnel, monitoring, summarizing, and reporting of specialized environmental performance information to internal and external stakeholders of a firm.”

At a minimum initially, each company should establish a sustainability policy with measurable goals and a public commitment to contribute to and support this effort through their actions and behaviors. While geosynthetic materials themselves make real and significant contributions to sustainability (Figure 4), that is not enough. Our industries’ actions should demonstrate our commitment to sustainable behaviors. This includes, but is not limited to, requirements of sustainable behavior of vendors, sustainable management of the packaging and transportation associated with the geosynthetics themselves, proper use of the geosynthetic materials, take-backs of unused or end-of-service-life materials, the use of recycled feed streams in the creation of geosynthetic materials, responsible and minimal use of water resources, electrical power used in production (especially nonrenewable sources) and other actions. 

FIGURE 4 Complete utilization of all materials (shown here by a geosynthetic cover capturing biogases at an ethanol stillage pond in Australia) is necessary for a sustainable economy.

More good news is that several participants in the geosynthetics industry have and are continuing to address these needs and offering examples of the leadership and actions necessary to address changes in our behaviors. I presented a webinar in January 2021 that reviewed some of these programs (Australasian Chapter of the International Geosynthetics Society 2021). The webinar featured:

  • Jean-Louis Vangeluwe, Solmax, on energy use reduction and use of renewable energy sources
  • Dennis Grech, Geofabrics Australasia Pty. Ltd., on the use of recycled feedstock to manufacture geotextiles
  • Sam Allen, TRI/Environmental Inc., on water conservation
  • Richard Bathurst, Royal Military College of Canada, on life-cycle analysis of engineering projects
  • Steve Thaxton, Owens Corning, on packaging take-back programs 
  • John Kraus, IGS, on the IGS’s survey of member’s sustainability efforts

One of the Solmax efforts for sustainable behaviors addressed energy consumption. The company commissioned C-nergie Inc. of Terrebonne, Que., Canada, a company specializing in energy efficiency, to conduct an energy audit of Solmax, which resulted in the implementation of a heating system optimization and centralized control project at the company’s manufacturing facility in Varennes, Que., Canada. The project involved recovering the waste energy produced and vented outside by extruders, machines often used to manufacture geomembranes, to significantly reduce natural gas consumption for additional heating and, thus, reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with operating the manufacturing facility. Since installation, the project has realized a 90% decrease in natural gas costs and has reduced the manufacturing facility’s natural gas consumption by 1,115,000 kwh (4,014 GJ) each year. More significantly, the project has resulted in an annual reduction of 200 tons (181 tonnes) of greenhouse gas emissions. This program is being extended to other Solmax facilities.

FIGURE 5 This geotextile, used in transportation/roadways, is manufactured from recycled polyester (PET) bottles. Photograph courtesy Geofabrics Australasia Pty. Ltd.

Also of interest were several comments made by Jean-Louis Vangeluwe, CEO of Solmax, on the views of his company in regard to sustainability. During the January 2021 webinar, Vangeluwe commented, “The higher responsibility, the higher focus should be on the environment and . . . climate change, greenhouse effect and carbon emissions. . . . This is our duty to find the right level and the right approach to give them a solution [that] is acceptable from all the different angles, acceptable to the regulatory bodies, acceptable for the customer and acceptable to the manufacturer.” 

So far as the financial motivations for this, Vangeluwe said, “To investors, sustainability metrics are as important as financial metrics.” 

When asked to predict the future for geosynthetics in 10 years, Vangeluwe said, “I think we could be highly sustainable, by all means, from the source to the use of the products, in all the applications.” 

TRI/Environmental, led by Sam Allen, has operated a program focused on water conservation. The TRI program was conceived to minimize water use as well as to capture the “used” or gray water for recycling and secondary uses. Water is now recirculated when possible and when not, reused for irrigation. This program has been financially viable but also fits TRI’s sustainability goals. 

During the webinar, Allen said, “We are responsible for the minimal consumption of the environment’s resources and products that we need.” 

While all companies in the geosynthetics arena are involved in waste reduction, water and energy conservation, and internal recycling, the leaders in use of recycled feed streams are Geofabrics Australasia Pty. Ltd. in Australia and Kaytech Engineered Fabrics in South Africa. Both companies produce continuous filament polyester (PET) geotextiles using primarily recycled feedstock, principally from single-use PET bottles. While PET is well suited, chemically, for this type of conversion, this general trend of using recycled feedstocks from other sources to produce high-quality geosynthetics must continue and expand if geosynthetics are to reach a necessary level of sustainable contributions. The materials produced by these companies meet the same performance and durability requirements as those produced from virgin (first-use) resins. 

Both companies have expended efforts in improving the incoming recycled feedstock streams. Clearly a consistent feedstock is necessary for good production metrics as is attention to removal of contamination. Clean, consistent recycled feedstock make utilization easier, and higher demand for recycled materials supports collection and reprocessing efforts. This chicken-and-egg issue must be, and can be, overcome.

At Kaytech Engineered Fabrics, located in Pinetown, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, more than 76.5 million recycled PET single-use bottles are used annually in the manufacturing of geotextiles. The company converts these PET bottles directly into continuous filament, which Kaytech lays down and needlepunches to produce the finished geotextile. This not only helps reduce the amount of waste going into landfills, it creates a significant number of income-generating opportunities for the people involved with bottle collection. Kaytech has extended its efforts into professional enterprise and transport/distribution development, as well as social programs intended to provide job and earning opportunities and to support educational programs.

At Geofabrics Australasia Pty. Ltd., headquartered in Braeside, Australia, a similar approach is used to divert PET bottles from landfills and, more importantly, from the stream of plastic contamination in the environment, waterways and oceans. In the January 2021 webinar, Dennis Grech, CEO and managing director of Geofabrics Australasia, reported that 11 million bottles were used in geotextile manufacture in the first 12-month period of the program. Grech said, “Using waste plastic that was otherwise destined for landfill[s] not only reduces the cost of road repair and construction, but also increases the strength and durability of our roads. . . . Our mission is to provide smarter infrastructure solutions for our clients, and by using this new technology[,] we can revolutionize the way we look at recycled plastic. . . . There is no doubt in my mind that there is momentum building for Australian manufacturers to increasingly use recycled materials. . . . We must move from a make, use, dispose model to a make, use, reuse, repair, and recycle model” (Figure 6).

FIGURE 6 Production of a geosynthetic drain system made from recycled materials. Photograph courtesy Geofabrics Australasia Pty. Ltd.

A more common approach is used by several geosynthetics companies related to packaging. A less complex, first step toward recycling is a take-back program for packaging, overwraps, slings and other materials supplied with the geosynthetic materials for identification and transport. In these cases, the manufacturing company has much more control over the packaging content of the materials. This is supported by mandates from engineering and general contractors to not leave any waste materials associated with geosynthetics on construction sites for disposal. 

Steve Thaxton, former geosynthetics business leader at Owens Corning, headquartered in Toledo, Ohio, spoke about the company’s efforts in this arena during the January 2021 webinar. Owens Corning operates a material take-back program to recycle returned materials into finished product. 

“We can utilize that [returned feed stream] in other products where it won’t hamper the performance of the materials, especially temporary or disposable type applications,” Thaxton said. This is an important point, contrary to the objection to the use of recycled materials as detrimental to the performance of geosynthetics as compared to “prime/virgin” grades. Intelligent use, as less critical components, and in less critical applications, is a good first step. There are many places in the geosynthetic world where recycled feed streams can and are making contributions today in noncritical applications. As the quality of recycled feed streams improves, their use can be expanded. 

A final example of this is the operation of Aero Aggregates of North America LLC, led by Archie Filshill, a longtime geosynthetics industry participant (and co-author of “Using Ultralightweight Foamed Glass Aggregate as MSE Wall Backfill” on page 33). This company, headquartered in Eddystone, Pa., uses recycled glass to manufacture a low-density fill material that is used to replace stone in civil construction. This low-density product is 85% lighter than traditional aggregates and is made in North America from 100% recycled container glass. Each AeroAggregates location diverts the equivalent of more than 140 million glass bottles per year from landfills and supplies a low-weight fill material that is essential for some roadway and civil engineering projects. 

I would be remiss if I did not mention explicitly the positive sustainability attributes of geosynthetic materials. The IGS, the Geosynthetic Materials Association (GMA), the European Association of Geosynthetic product Manufacturers (EAGM), the Geosynthetic Institute (GSI) and many other organizations have documented and present positive appraisals of the sustainable and environmental attributions of geosynthetic materials. Richard Bathurst at the Royal Military College of Canada, Neil Dixon at Loughborough University in the U.K., Holger Wallbaum of Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, Matthias Stucki of the Zürich University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland, George Koerner at GSI and many of their respective colleagues have published papers and articles contributing to these evaluations. Geosynthetics are superb materials and make real and significant contributions to sustainability—but we need to improve the areas where our industry is underperforming and address our weaknesses rather than pat ourselves on the back for what we have accomplished to date. 

The sustainability survey conducted by the IGS in 2021 and reported on by IGS executive director John Kraus reflects some serious deficiencies. Most companies in our industry do not publish environmental and sustainability policy statements—the first step in committing to improve. Metrics are also significantly lacking. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” is attributed to Peter Drucker, Lord Kelvin or W. Edwards Deming but, regardless, its meaning is certainly clear: Measurement and attention help to get problems solved and progress made (Figure 7). 

FIGURE 7 Life-cycle assessment is an important tool for measuring sustainable behavior. Shown here is the use of geosynthetics in retaining walls, which reduces soils/stone and energy use dramatically, especially when the life-cycle impacts are considered. Photograph courtesy Richard Bathurst

I challenge the geosynthetics industry to follow the recommendation of Chungsik Yoo (2022), president of the IGS, and rapidly adopt environmental and sustainability policy statements, post those publicly and also to communicate performance toward the goals using the metrics each company has chosen. 

I challenge each individual who reads this to adopt a more sustainable life: Change and reduce what you buy and consume, minimize waste, recycle everything you can, and educate and involve others in this effort. 

The webinar with commentary from geosynthetics industry leaders reported here occurred in January 2021. By the time of publication of this article, in the April/May 2022 issue of Geosynthetics, more than a year will have passed. Greta Thunberg (PBS News Hour 2019) is correct in that humankind is moving too slowly—certainly not reflecting the magnitude and importance of our sustainability problem. The geosynthetics industry does well, but we need to do more.

Boyd Ramsey has been a leader within the geosynthetics, environmental containment and waste disposal industries for more than 25 years. He is a geosynthetics consultant based in Houston, Texas.

All figures courtesy of the author except as noted.

References

Australasian Chapter of the International Geosynthetics Society. (2021). “Ethics in geosynthetics.” Webinar presented by Boyd Ramsey, ACIGS, Braeside, Australia. https://www.acigs.org/resources/video-library/boyd-ramsey-ethics-geosynthetics-january-2021, Jan. 28. 

Harari, Yuval Noah. (2015). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind, Harper, New York. 

International Geosynthetics Society. (2021). “IGS sustainability statement.” IGS, Austin, Texas. https://www.geosyntheticssociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/IGS_Sustainability_Statement_Dec_2021.pdf, December. 

International Geosynthetics Society. (2021). “Sustainability.” IGS, Austin, Texas. https://www.geosyntheticssociety.org/sustainability. December. 

International Organization for Standardization.
(2015). “Environmental management systems:  Requirements with guidance for use.” ISO, Geneva, Switzerland. https://www.iso.org/standard/60857.html. September. 

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2001). Extended producer responsibility: A guidance manual for governments, OECD Publishing, Paris, France. https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264189867-en

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2016). Extended producer responsibility: Updated guidance for efficient waste management, OECD Publishing, Paris, France. https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264256385-en

PBS News Hour. (2019). “WATCH: Greta Thunberg’s full speech to world leaders at UN Climate Action Summit.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAJsdgTPJpU. Sept. 23. 

Sandel, Michael J. (2012). What money can’t buy: The moral limits of markets, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

United Nations. (2015). “Transforming our world: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” Adopted at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, New York, Sept. 25–27. https://sdgs
.un.org/2030agenda. 

United Nations. (2022). “The 17 goals,” United Nations Division for Sustainable Development Goals, New York. https://sdgs.un.org/goals

Yoo, Chungsik. (2022). “Leadership in sustainable practices.” Letter sent to International Geosynthetics Society members. https://myemail.constantcontact.com/Leadership-in-Sustainability-Practices.html?soid=1111082143825&aid=ZCPeXz_7GUQ. Jan. 20. 

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