These days, recycled-content products are hard to ignore. Manufacturers, trying to capitalize on the green zeitgeist, are adding their own waste material to products and marketing them as green. It’s not exactly cheating, Sties says, but it’s not far off. “Postindustrial recycling is usually scrap from [manufacturers’] own factories,” he says. “It’s the low-hanging fruit.” His preferred alternative is products made with post-consumer waste. Post-consumer means that “this material was reclaimed from the built environment and suggests a new business model, as well as a new product,” he explains.
But even architects who vet materials with rigor agree the market has worthwhile offerings. Dean’s list of favorites includes cellulose insulation made from newsprint, flyash concrete, composite lumber, and metal roofing. Graybeal is a fan of cellulose and reclaimed wood siding, and Freed likes composite decking made with shopping bags and wood pallets.
Among other offerings, you can now buy flooring made from reconstituted leather scraps and panels made from renewable or reclaimed agricultural byproducts. Tile and countertop products are two of the richest categories. Tile manufacturers have always reused their production castoffs, but many now use up to 100 percent curbside glass, aircraft aluminum, and salvaged bricks.
The notion of recycled content may not yet be fully formed, but it’s a step in the right direction, architects say. “It gets to the root of what [William] McDonough is doing with cradle-to-grave and cradle-to-cradle,” Graybeal says. McDonough envisions a database of materials that are recycled or reused into perpetuity, never entering the waste stream. Some exist, but the idea is to develop more.
Whatever product you use, those at GREENGUARD recommend a careful screening process. “As a rule of thumb, be wary of recycled-content products that are made from materials whose original purpose was something other than close contact/indoor use—such as an automotive tire being ‘recycled’ into flooring,” Black warns.
Freed, author of recently released Green$ense: Rating the Real Payoff from 50 Green Home Projects (The Taunton Press), has his own process for product assessment. Some of the questions he asks: Where does the material come from? What are the byproducts of its manufacture? How is it delivered and installed? He also inquires about maintenance, potential health effects, and what happens at the end of its life. “These questions don’t have clear answers, but that’s OK,” he says. What matters is that they “raise issues and start a dialogue.”
In the end, Freed says he makes choices that stay true to his priorities. “I’d prefer something that’s healthy and nontoxic rather than something made with 100 percent recycled vinyl or plastic,” he explains.
If sustainability “is ever going to mean anything,” Sties says, “we must embrace the cradle-to-cradle design flow from a materials standpoint.” And yet he cautions that recycled-content products may not always be the best option. If given a choice between “a recycled-content product from California and a locally sourced virgin product,” the Virginia-based architect argues, “I choose the virgin every time.”