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Environment, Safety and Reasonable Pricing - Priorities for Steel Construction Industry in 2012

“The truth is that steel, when taking a holistic approach to energy, is an extremely environmentally-friendly, green product and often more so than products like brick and mortar,”

Among its many important priorities for 2012 and beyond there are none more crucial to the Southern African Institute of Steel Construction (SAISC) than the promotion of steel as a green product, the protection of the local consumer – especially from the imports of sub-standard and dangerous products and the fight for reasonable pricing from the steel producers.

“It is perhaps a truism that one of the most pressing challenges facing global industry is to make its processes less harmful to the environment or, in the current parlance, more ‘green’ and the

Institute is committed to helping the local industry to be more energy efficient while also demonstrating that significant strides have been made in making steel more green with a reduction in its carbon footprint of more than 40% in the last 50 years.

“The fact of the matter is that steel is one of the greener construction materials but there is a perception, because steel factories have large chimneys spewing smoke into the air, that steel must be bad for the environment. But, as we shall see, in relation to the environment, with steel ‘what you see’ is not necessarily ‘what you get’,” says de Clercq.

According to de Clercq the carbon footprint has generally been accepted as the criterion by which to measure the environmental impact of construction products and materials. He says the advantage of this criterion is that it deals both with the global warming impact as well as the use of energy. The key is to take into account the whole life-cycle of a construction project and not only the impact of producing the material. “In order to ascertain a fair measurement of the impact of a construction material on the environment one has to take a holistic view,” he says.

De Clercq adds that unfortunately for most materials, the information that is available deals only with the 'cradle-to-gate’ process, which means measuring only what happens up to the moment the product leaves the factory.

“With construction projects there is also the transport, the activities on the construction site, maintenance during the life of the project and, importantly, what happens at the end of the life-cycle of the project that must be taken into account.

“For example, with structural steel there is often the possibility of re-using the steel structure at the end of the life-cycle of the project, either where it stands or by taking it to another site. If the steel cannot be re-used virtually every scrap of it can be recycled by melting it and then making new products using less energy than if they were made of steel from iron ore.  If measured in this way, the 'cradle to grave' carbon footprint becomes relatively small.”

De Clercq points out that with respect to concrete, steel’s main construction material competitor, while the production process may seem at first sight to be more environmentally benign than steel’s, the life-cycle story is quite different.  The options for re-use are minimal, salvaging the reinforcing steel bars is difficult and, whereas you can grind and re-use the stone and sand, the cement, which is the item with a large carbon footprint, is totally lost.

“The bottom line can be summarised by a recent study done in the United Kingdom, which showed that the carbon footprint of a concrete structure for a building can be some 22% more than that of a steel structure.

“The truth is that steel, when taking a holistic approach to energy, is an extremely environmentally-friendly, green product and often more so than products that may appear more ‘natural and earthy’,” says de Clercq.

In terms of safety concerns, the SAISC is determined to make the authorities and the industry as a whole aware of the pitfalls of importing substandard steel products like guard rails, steel floor products such as grating used mostly for industrial applications, industrial hand rails and, critically, roof sheeting.

"There is simply no system to enforce minimum quality standards when it comes to the importation of these safety critical items. For example, a guard rail is designed to deflect back onto the road a car that hits is at a certain angle and speed. If it is not strong enough and the steel does not have the correct properties it will fail with potentially lethal consequences. Similarly, if a handrail is not strong enough and does not meet the requirements of national building legislation, the consequences could be tragic,” de Clercq warns.

But he says that the area of perhaps greatest concern, as it affects vast sections of the less privileged, is that of roof sheeting where huge quantities brought into the country are of inferior quality in terms of the steel used, the thickness of the steel, the profile of the sheet and, most importantly, the zinc coating, which should prevent rusting.

“These roof-sheets tend to last for a few years only and usually get severely damaged every time someone climbs onto the roof or if there is a wind slightly stronger than average - the frequency with which roof sheets are blown off under windy conditions is not unrelated to the quality of the product. Ultimately it is the homeowners who can least afford it who suffer the most in these circumstances,” de Clercq says.

He adds that in most developed countries it would be impossible to import substandard products especially those that are safety critical. "In Europe for example you simply cannot sell a product that does not have the required quality approval. South Africa and Africa in general, have become a dumping ground for substandard products because the unwitting, or sometimes unscrupulous client, who are not concerned with quality. They are concerned only with the price and the consequent profits to be made – and in current circumstances they can get away with it!

“The crux of the problem is that there is no body, statutory or otherwise, in South Africa that protects consumers against such abuse. While the national regulator can outlaw the production and importation of products that do not meet standards, it tends to limit its concentration to issues that have a direct health and safety connection.

“Of course the irony is that these construction products are critical to the safety of the people who use them but they are not officially defined as health and safety products and our discussions with the relevant parties to include them in the list of products under their control have not been successful. We, of course will continue to engage the relevant people on this issue with the aim of a satisfactory outcome,” de Clercq says.

On the important question of pricing in the steel industry, de Clercq says that until recently companies in the local steel construction industry did not regard the price of steel from local suppliers in anyway a hindrance to the success of their businesses.” However, this has now become an issue,” de Clercq says.

"The negative issues surrounding the price of steel have been exacerbated by inconsistent supply of steel from the local mills. In 2011 there wasn't a single quarter when one or other type of steel was not in short supply because of problems at one or other of the mills. The result has been that the image of the local mills as reliable suppliers has been dented and imports have increased significantly," he says.

He adds that the local steel producers will now have to make some fundamental changes and do some serious work over an extended period to turn this situation around. "It is essential for the health of the entire industry that there is efficient utilisation of our mills in terms of local consumption and that imports are, to a greater extent, curbed. A vital part of the process of achieving this is surely to reduce prices to a level where it becomes a genuinely attractive option to buy locally again,” de Clercq concludes.

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