This year's big news from Blue Circle is the introduction of two new European-style blended cements.
One of these bears a brand name some in the concrete industry may still remember from a few decades ago. Says Blue Circle Cement technical director Rob Davies: 'Phoenix is an interground blend of Ordinary Portland Cement and pulverised fuel ash, with the PFA forming between 25% and 30% of the total.
'It used to be available in the north east and south west of England. Now we're offering it, in bulk only, from four works throughout the country.'
First time around the ready mixed concrete industry, the main target market, generally preferred to buy the PFA direct and blend it at the point of batching.
Now Blue Circle believes the market is ready for a product which offers greater convenience and consistency of performance than insitu blends.
Price will still be the ultimate factor, however, and Davies says that Phoenix will be priced at a level which will be attractive to the ready mixed producers.
The other new bulk cement, an OPC/limestone blend which so far has not acquired a brand name, is produced at Blue Circle's Aberthaw works. Aimed at the concrete products market as well as the rmc industry, the blend is claimed to offer better workability as well as comparable strength to standard OPC.
Blended cements are just one way of improving competitiveness. Blue Circle is also in the middle of a massive £120M investment programme intended to increase energy efficiency right across its UK works. Another £200M is earmarked for the proposed new Medway works, which still awaits planning permission. And then there are alternative fuels.
'In 10 years time we should be replacing a significantly larger proportion of our conventional fuels with waste-derived alternatives', Davies says. 'At the moment it's more like 5%, mostly old tyres.'
Unlike its UK competitors, Blue Circle has invested in the technology to process tyres into 50mm 'chips'. Currently it has approval to burn up to 4t/hour at its Cauldon works near Derby. It would like to introduce the technology to its Dunbar works in Scotland - but this will not be a simple exercise.
'Under the Substitute Fuels Protocol (see box) we have to start again from scratch and carry out a full series of trials costing up to £600,000', Davies complains. 'It's really frustrating, as the kilns at Dunbar and Cauldon are identical, but we're not allowed to utilise any of the experience we've already gained.
'Only the testing agencies benefit from this policy, which puts us at a real competitive disadvantage to producers in countries like Switzerland, Belgium and Germany. There they have a much more positive attitude to recovering energy from waste.'
Davies would like to see the Government appreciate the benefits of what he describes as a 'win- win scenario' - recovering energy from waste and improving kiln emissions at the same time.
He adds: 'It would be shortsighted if government policy resulted in us continuing to burn fossil fuels at the same time as wastes we could exploit go to landfill or incinerators.
'But we can't keep on ploughing the current level of investment into trials of alternatives without some recognition of our efforts.'
Despite the difficulties, trials of chipped tyres should also start soon at Hope Works, and Westbury has been trying out whole tyres for some time. Like the other producers, Blue Circle has discovered that the way to defuse opposition to alternative fuels is to foster good relationships with the local community.
'While I was responsible for the Westbury trials we made a point of encouraging local residents to tour the works,' Davies reports.
'Once they realised how high the temperature in the kiln was, they accepted it was a viable and economic way to dispose of waste products like old tyres.
All these efforts to increase efficiency may be overwhelmed if proposed Climate Change Levy is applied without major amendments, Davies believes. He goes further. 'It could sound the death knell to the entire UK cement industry.
'Our European competitors would be able to land cement in the UK well below the cost of producing it here, because of their much more relaxed regulatory regime. A lot depends on the current negotiations with the Department of Trade, Industry and the Regions.'
Davies is reasonably hopeful that an acceptable compromise will be achieved. 'I believe the DETR does recognise the opportunity, and that there is a good chance of our case being accepted.'