Jukka talks about the huge potential for circular use of materials
, by Jukka Viitanen

The industry NRC Group operates within, is a heavy user of materials and energy; more than 40 % of natural resources are consumed and almost 40 % of global greenhouse gas emissions are generated in the building and construction industry. Our footprint as an industry is heavy. On the other hand, all members of our societies need the products and services we provide. We need buildings as homes and workplaces, we use roads and railways for transportation and mobility, we need electricity, communication networks and sanitation. We are surrounded by built environment that shapes our lifestyle. The circumstances change rapidly. We experience accelerating climate change with more commonly occurring extreme weather events, scarcity and increasing prices of materials and energy since the Russian invaded Ukraine. The fundamental idea of sustainability is to leave the world behind us in a better condition as it was during our time. How exactly can we do that?

Construction and maintenance of railway infrastructure is the core business for NRC Group. The materials needed for our business, the railway specific materials, are produced using of virgin raw materials and energy. To produce the tracks, temperature higher than 1530 °C is needed to melt the iron, railway ballast is blasted from bedrock and crushed into the wanted fraction in a crushing plant and the railway sleepers are produced of concrete or wood impregnated with creosote oil. When these materials are put together as a railway, the result enables train traffic, transportation with very low carbon footprint. According to some estimates, only riding a bicycle causes lower emissions.

The fundamental idea of sustainability is to leave the world behind us in a better condition as it was during our time.

Gro Harlem Brundtland

Has there been any development of producing the railway specific materials to reduce the footprint? Yes, there has. Materials such as the tracks and railway sleepers, may be re-used by moving them from the primary location into a new one. Usually this means moving them into railways with lower traffic volumes, giving the materials a second life. This applies to many other railway specific materials too. Additionally, the materials are rarely produced of virgin raw materials only. Iron is recycled very effectively, and many concrete producers use cement where limestone is partially replaced by slag or ash. The railway specific materials do circulate rather effectively, but there is one exception: the railway ballast. The ballast often ends up in its life cycle to replace e.g. excavated soils or aggregates in earth construction, not fully utilizing the high-quality properties of the ballast. But it doesn’t end up in landfill either.

According to our studies, the production of railway specific materials, when constructing 1 km of single-track railway, causes 237 tons of CO2 as shown in the picture below. Constructing and maintaining railways is heavy duty when it comes to climate impact, but it has large handprint as well, since it enables low carbon transport of the end user. On the other hand, the potential of railways and the materials is not fully utilised yet. Circulating the railway specific materials more effectively may provide raw materials for some other construction product manufacturers, as buildings as material banks-model, BAMB, describes. Increasing the circulation of all material consumption is the key to mitigating the climate change. We are on the right track, but the journey has just begun.


Jukka Viitanen

Head of Sustainability