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A Green Window into the Urban Future: Glass Concrete

By Colin Morris


New Yorkers learned recently that recycling is more expensive than sending all waste to landfills and incinerators, according to a report released by the city's Independent Budget Office. You don't have to be a Green Party member to feel good about recycling, and most New Yorkers seem to think that it's one small, not terribly inconvenient thing they can do to help the environment. In our cash-strapped city, which has seen recycling suspended for financial reasons once before, it was yet another piece of bad news. But Christian Meyer, professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, has some good news: he and his coworkers have developed a successful version of a technology that will satisfy citizens worried about both the economy and the environment—glass concrete, a product that may literally pave the road to sustainable development.

Glass concrete is not a new concept. The idea of using recycled glass as an aggregate for concrete has been around for at least 30 years. Until now, however, the concept could not be realized because of chemical reactions between the glass and cement that can cause cracks and damage unacceptable for a building material. In the Carleton Lab, Meyer and his team have created a successful recipe for a durable, strong form of glass concrete and, with the assistance of Columbia 's Science and Technology Ventures (S&TV), are actively developing the commercial possibilities. "One of the arguments is that recycling is far too expensive and you have to landfill the glass somewhere. We will show that this does not have to be the case," said Meyer.

Glass concrete, the main ingredient of which is recycled post-consumer glass, falls under the increasingly popular category of materials for "green," or ecologically sound, buildings, which is gaining momentum among architects and civil engineers, fueled to a large extent by governmental regulations on the federal, state and local levels. The U.S. Green Building Council, a coalition of leaders from across the building industry working to promote environmentally responsible buildings, has made major headway in recent years. The council has developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, a consensus-based national standard used to certify buildings as officially "green." The system, originally conceived as voluntary, is now required by many governmental agencies. The LEED system allocates points for environmentally friendly aspects of construction and design. If you build next to a subway station, you receive a point for encouraging workers to use mass transit. The more recycled materials that are used, the higher the rating. The first "green" office building in Manhattan is the recently completed Conde Nast Building at 4 Times Square. Bob Fox, the building's lead architect, had visited Meyer and his team in the hopes of using his glass concrete for the bathrooms. However, at that time they didn't have the production facilities for such a major job. The next time they are approached they'll be ready, Meyer says: because Columbia is in contact with a number of companies capable of producing their innovative product.

Christian Meyer

For example, the Wausau Tile Company, based in Wisconsin, is already mass-producing terrazzo tiles and other glass concrete products under license from Columbia. Depending on the customer's wishes, the glass concrete can be produced with glass particles of different sizes and color, matched with a suitably colored matrix as background -- architects and designers are finding that glass concrete is not only environmentally sound but can be aesthetically pleasing as well. Yet, such high-end or value-added products can absorb only so much of the millions of tons of waste glass collected by municipalities nationwide. To really put a dent into the solid waste stream requires that large-volume applications such as concrete masonry blocks and paving stones be manufactured with glass concrete as well.

According to Meyer, the Grinnell Co. of Sparta, N.J., a major producer of paving stones, probably could single-handedly utilize all the glass collected in New York City, for instance. The critical precondition is that the company receive the glass cheaply enough so that it can still make a profit, because the market for such "commodity products" as paving stones has lower profit margins than the market for high-end terrazzo tiles or table top counters. For this reason it would be critical that the concrete producer reach an agreement with a major recycler and the City of New York, including its sanitation workers, who might worry about losing an important part of their work. Also, the glass needs to be cleaned and crushed to specifications and possibly color sorted as well, which would increase costs.

The Columbia team wants to raise awareness of its technology in the building and architectural community through a forum, set for May 6, that will gather architects, engineers, developers, planners and others to discuss needs and incentives to drive the use of environmentally friendly building materials.

"We need to put some fire under the seats especially of the guys in the concrete industry, to let them know if they don't get on the bandwagon, they'll be left behind. And maybe one day they will not be able to bid on half the new buildings going up in New York City," said Meyer, who had recently organized a panel discussion for the Concrete Industry Board of New York to start this process.

For more information on the May 6 forum, call 212-854-1243.

Published: Feb 24, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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