Donorstaal platform gives steel a second life

When you use steel, that’s not the end of its life cycle. Its properties stay intact, so a used steel pipe, beam or profile are just as strong and reliable as a new one. This means that steel building components can be dismantled and reused a second, third or even fourth time. Swanenberg IJzer Groep has been building on the circular economy for years by doing exactly this.

The circular business model of Donorstaal

Buildings that are demolished are often still in good structural condition. If the supporting structures are carefully dismantled, you can give steel profiles a second chance. Temporary structures used in road and waterway construction are also a rich source of reusable materials. Swanenberg IJzer Groep buys up this used material and sells it to new projects, providing a buy-back guarantee so that the buyer can return it.

“There are obvious advantages to reusing steel,” says Sales Purchase Manager Frank van der Loop. “Homeowners, demolition companies, construction companies and developers can substantially reduce the net costs of a demolition and building project if they can buy and sell used steel somewhere. As traders we can sell the steel on for new projects, with a buy-back guarantee. This creates a sustainable and recycling loop that reduces commodities and energy use and carbon emissions too.”

Global network

In the course of more than fifty years, Swanenberg has built up a global network to source used steel. “It comes from literally everywhere,” Financial Director Jeroen Keijzers confirms. “Our customers include construction and demolition companies, as well as big project developers. We’ve collected pipes from the Middle East that were made for use in oil transport. We have a shipment of steel coming in now that was used in the construction of the new sea lock at IJmuiden in the Netherlands. And the list goes on.”

Urban mining; the city as a recycle source

In the circular economy, buildings aren’t demolished when they reach the end of their useful life – instead they are ‘harvested’ or ‘deconstructed’. Raw and reusable materials are dismantled and recycled in other projects, significantly increasing a building’s value. This is the idea behind urban mining: the city as a source of building materials. “It’s a perfect match with the way we work,” says Frank. “If I hear a building’s being demolished somewhere I’ll often drive by to ask if there’s any usable steel in it that we could buy. More and more demolition companies are actively salvaging components, there are valuable materials to be found everywhere. Demolition used to be an expense item, now you can earn money with it.”

Steel construction pit

The used steel Swanenberg supplies is recycled for all kinds of things: from foundations to building structures, civil engineering works and temporary support structures. “In major construction projects they often use a temporary steel construction pit fitted with horizontal tubes known as struts,” says Sales Manager Jan den Brok. “That’s exactly the kind of thing we supply. We tailor the steel components for the project and when the project’s finished we buy the steel back. We know its quality and properties so we’re always keen to get it back.”

The tunnelling work on the A2 motorway near Maastricht in the Netherlands a few years ago is an excellent example. Swanenberg supplied the struts for this prestigious project. Jan: “The strut structure consisted mainly of tubes produced for the Nord Stream pipeline used by Russia to transport natural gas to Europe. The tubes were no longer needed for the pipeline so we bought the steel and used it to build a 12,000 tonne strut structure. Afterwards, we bought back the steel to reuse in future projects.”

A different mindset

The civil engineering sector is already sold on the advantages of used steel – lower costs, delivery from stock and substantial environmental benefits. As a result, it’s increasingly common for calls for tender to include a used steel requirement. Despite this progress, the used steel market is challenging. Jan: “Construction companies are bound to certain specifications and don’t readily deviate from them. We can offer used alternatives that are every bit as good, but not everybody is open to the idea. That’s why we get our used products certified. We work with testing laboratories that perform technical analyses so that we can guarantee the quality of the used steel. If we want to grow the circular market for used steel, we need to change the mindset of the parties in the chain. That’s how we came up with the idea for our steel recycling platform Donorstaal.”

Swanenberg uses Donorstaal to promote steel recycling and eradicate market resistance. The platform is Frank’s brainchild: “We are absolutely convinced about the possibilities and advantages used steel offers and are more than willing to take the lead in the market. We’re doing that by providing information and communicating. That’s why we set up the Donorstaal platform – to spotlight steel recycling and show what we’re already doing in that field. On the website we try to get people on board with practical information and inspiring examples. We want to convince construction companies and designers that buying new products isn’t always the best way to go. We need to get the circular chain moving.”

Circular for fifty years

Jeroen: “I took part in ABN AMRO’s Business Innovation Workshop. It teaches you how to make your business model sustainable or circular. It really opened my eyes because I thought, ‘Our business model has been circular for fifty years, so why aren’t we shouting it from the rooftops?’ That’s exactly why we set up Donorstaal.”

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