Not A Chip Off The Old Block

May 11, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — It's a concrete idea that is solidly catching on with masonry firms, construction managers, building owners and the Kent County Department of Public Works.

EPI Concrete Products Inc. produces concrete blocks that by and large are made of recycled glass. But the Grandville-based company doesn't just manufacture the building blocks; it also collects the used glass, crushes it, then mixes the crushed glass with cement, sand and other items before reusing the material to make the blocks.

Products made by EPI Concrete are being used in the construction of the JW Marriott Hotel and the River House condominium project going up next to

Bridgewater Place
. The blocks have already helped build two manufacturing plants in Walker and elementary and middle schools in Kalamazoo, and will be used in a new Target store in Norton Shores.

That is a pretty good track record in a fairly short amount of time because EPI Concrete is a relatively new kid on the, well, block. The company was formed in February of 2006, but didn't begin making its blocks until last November.

"We currently produce a standard grade, or what we call a standard unit, that is a regular gray concrete block, and that one carries 60 percent recycled content. In the past, the industry standard was 25 to 30 percent," said EPI Concrete CEO Chris Harkema.

The company also makes blocks for the architectural market. These blocks are textured, come in colors other than gray including multiples, and add an aesthetic look to a design.

"Those units are 45 percent recycled material," said Harkema.

"But what brings us value is we're bringing it to market at no additional cost to the owner. So there is no premium for using our products," he added.

That wasn't always the case. Until sustainability issues took center stage, environmentally friendly products always carried a higher price tag. But a big reason why EPI Concrete can offer its "green" blocks at "gray" prices is that the company is also a waste management firm, meaning it gathers its own discarded glass and other non-hazardous materials.

For instance, Harkema said EPI removed about eight tons of three-quarter-inch tempered glass from the Steelcase World Headquarters on 44th Street SE. Recovery work like that has helped to triple the amount of glass being reused in the county.

KentCounty's recycling center, part of the county's DPW, normally recycles about 425 tons of clear glass each year. But Harkema said nearly 1,500 tons of clear and colored glass that the county didn't accept last year will be recycled this year, partly through his firm's efforts.

"We're a concrete-block manufacturer first and foremost. The second thing is, we're a waste management company. Third, we are a glass recycler. Fourth, we're in community service. The community service aspect of our business really comes from the glass recycling business," said Harkema.

"We use both industrial cullet waste and we use curbside-waste glass. We're working with the KentCounty recycling facility. Since we have been involved, we've helped change their sorting process, and that has made them a little more efficient. They now can let the whole clear glass go through along with the broken glass and the colored glass that they would not accept in 2006, but got anyway," he said.

The EPI in EPI Concrete Products stands for EnviroProducts International, a firm in Denver. Colorado's EPI, though, doesn't have an ownership in EPI Concrete Products; Harkema and a group of silent investors own the local company. But there is an affiliation between the two that extends beyond their names.

"We share ownership with EnviroProducts International, or EPI, for some of the technology they have to offer. They're basically a company that sources waste and tries to incorporate it back into saleable products," said Harkema.

Because glass is completely recyclable, because the triple-bottom line has been adopted by over 100 local businesses, and because LEED certification is very popular with architects and builders, Harkema sees a bright future ahead for EPI Concrete Products, and he wants to share his vision with the public.

To do that, Harkema is holding an open house at EPI's place,

2901 Chicago Drive SW
, on May 22 from until He said if people can't make it during those hours, they can stop by and take a peek at their process anytime, because "We're always working."     

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