Founded in Switzerland over a centennial heritage, Holcim is going to merged with Lafarge to create the world’s largest cement group with a production potential of 350 million tonnes per year. Holcim Vietnam is the leading supplier in that country of both bagged, dry cement powder and concrete, known as ready-mix or beton and supplied to contractors and building materials distributors in the country.
It’s well known that Vietnam is a development success story. According to the World Bank, political and economic reforms (Doi Moi) launched in 1986 have transformed Vietnam from one of the poorest countries in the world, with per capita income below $100, to a lower middle income country within a quarter of a century with per capita income of over $2,000 by the end of 2014.
Vietnam’s growth rate has averaged 6.4 percent per year for the last decade, but it has begun to slow recently. In 2014, GDP growth was 6 percent, projected to flatten in 2015 and to start to pick up in 2016. This is precisely reflected in the construction sector, says Nguyễn Công Minh Bao, Sustainable Development Director. “Because of the general downturn economic situation, the demand for cement has been flat for most of this year, and it has been difficult to grow any part of the business because of overcapacity in the industry as a whole. Though some government projects are going ahead with lot of infrastructure development, the private sector has been stagnant due to lot of these projects is going to SOE (State-own Enterprises).
If anything the demand for beton has kept up better. Large construction EPC contractors will normally rely on Holcim because they know the company has the technical knowledge to provide them with the right high quality material for the job. They don’t have to look hard for proof. At the heart of Ho Chi Minh City stands the recently completed Times Square complex. At 163 metres it is one of the tallest buildings in Vietnam and the piled foundation slab had to be correspondingly tough. Holcim Vietnam provided a special solution comprising ‘mass beton’ concrete using low heat ‘Holcim Mass Pour’ cement, and controlling the fresh concrete temperature with ice and chilled water to avoid any possibility of cracks.
No other cement supplier could come close to that level of sophistication Minh Bảo points out. But the technical superiority of this company is internationally understood. One of its chief differentiating advantages in the local market is its sustainability policy. “Sustainable development is at the core of our business strategy: we try to integrate economic growth, environmental performance and social responsibility and to balance those three aspects in everything we do.”
It’s a bold stance for a cement company to openly embrace the triple bottom line, and Holcim Vietnam had to take some bold steps to achieve it, he says, and was willing to put its money where its mouth is. “I think one of the biggest advantages of Holcim is that we have a very lean culture and a very efficient process. We have invested a lot in green manufacturing, and as a result we achieve better margins than our competitors.” Cement prices are pegged by the government, he points out, so the most competitive company will always be the one that controls its costs.
The launch of the Geocycle business unit in 2007 was a turning point, and today Holcim provides waste management solutions to a diverse range of industries in Vietnam by co-processing their waste products in its cement kilns. In a single operation, a range of industries are able to dispose of their waste in an environmentally friendly way, he explains. “The waste materials are collected and brought to our facilities at Cat Lai for temporary storage, pre-processing and laboratory test. Then transferred to our Hon Chong plant in Kien Giang province for mixing, shredding and co-processing. In the kiln where the cement clinker is produced, temperatures up to 1,500 degrees are required to produce clinker, which means that even hazardous waste is safely consumed.”
This has been a win-win operation for Holcim and the companies whose waste it processes alike. “We believe that if every company cleaned up its processes, it would work to their competitive advantage. For us the waste management initiative is the perfect example of environmental responsibility in the service of productivity.” In Holcim’s processes it reduces the dependence on coal, and consequently the cost of clinker production: at the same time, it cuts the amount of material going to landfill, reduces emissions of methane, and helps reduce the risk of soil or water pollution from landfill sites. Further investment last year saw the kilns upgraded, and the addition of a waste storage unit supplied by alternative solid fuels handling specialist Walter Materials Handling (part of the ATS Group). This is a highly automated facility that improves safety by minimising human contact with the waste stream. In 2012 the company started to build a 6.27MW waste heat recovery power plant (WHR) at its Hon Chong plant.. This $18 million plant is one of the outstanding milestones in the company’s sustainable development journey, since as well as contributing 25 percent of the power the cement plant needs, the generating station enables Holcim Vietnam to eliminate approximately 25,000 tonnes of CO2, the equivalent of 9,300 tonnes of coal per year, releasing back to the national gird, the equivalent to 18000 household using electricity during one year.
Two waste heat sources are used: the kiln preheater exhaust gases and the clinker cooler exhaust. “It represents a huge saving in terms of our carbon footprint,” says Bảo. “And it saves lot of cash from the business because we reduce our dependence to the National grid and his power outage.” Construction of the plant started in 2012 and was completed in October 2013.
It should be noted too, he adds, that CO2 is not the only environmental impact by cement plants, which used to be notoriously dusty. However in Holcim’s achievement context, Vietnamese law requires that industrial dust emissions should be below 100 milligrams per cubic metre (mg/Nm3). Since the decision was made to replace the existing electrostatic precipitator (which was the state-of the art technology at the build of the plant), which achieved between 40 and 50 mg/Nm3, with a bag filter dust emissions have been drastically reduced, and are now well below Holcim’s corporate target of 20 mg/Nm3 (between 2 to 8mg/Nm3). Hon Chong can now be considered a world class facility.
So far we have just spoken about process improvements, but another part of Holcim Vietnam’s vision is to formulate green products, using recycled materials where possible, to assist customers in Lotus accreditation (the local equivalent of Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, or LEED). Vietnam’s construction industry is not ready to embrace these principles fully, but Bảo is determined his company should be well ahead of the market here. As an example, Holcim Mass Pour cement, referred to earlier, contains up to 60 percent recycled slag, twice as much as is specified by LEED or Lotus. It and many other Holcim products are the only products referenced in the green building materials database by the Vietnam Green Building Council.