How do I choose the best recycled building materials?

Glass, paper and plastics are among the most commonly used recycled materials to create construction products.

Recycled building materials can reduce the environmental impact of construction projects when they are chosen wisely, with an awareness of the distance traveled, use of resources involved in their production and composition. Many large communities have a facility or facilities that handle reclaimed and recycled materials, and it may also be possible to go directly through a contractor for some products. Consumers who want to use recycled building materials should be aware of the risk of greenwashing, where companies make environmental claims that are not actually supported by the products they produce.

It is important to distinguish between recycled and reclaimed or salvaged materials. Recycled building materials are made with some percentage of post-consumer content and can include things like glass, engineered wood products, ceramics, and so on. Reclaimed and salvaged materials are used materials that are removed during demolition and other activities, cleaned and sold for reuse. It is possible to use a mixture of recycled and reused materials, depending on the need.

One thing to consider when evaluating recycled building materials is the percentage of recycled material. If, for example, a homeowner wants to use wallpaper made from recycled fibers, there is a significant difference between a product with 5% post-consumer content and one made with 45%. The more material recycled, the fewer new resources were involved in producing the material. For materials such as engineered woods, it may be possible to get a very high percentage of recycled content.

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Another issue is the workforce destined for recycling. If materials need to be transported over great distances and heavily processed before being used to make recycled building materials, they may not be environmentally friendly. Companies may also engage in activities such as bleaching for aesthetic reasons, in which case the final product may be less eco-friendly than it would have been. Consumers may want to research the recycling process to learn more and determine whether a recycled, reclaimed or new product would be most appropriate.

Transport can also be a factor with recycled building materials. The distance traveled may impact the product’s carbon footprint and it may be possible to purchase a more environmentally friendly alternative. Some companies offset their transit with carbon credits and may also seek carbon neutrality in other aspects of their operations. Any environmental claims made should be evaluated by checking with the source, such as a certification agency, to find out what types of standards are defined and how the standards are applied.

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