Reclaimed from What?

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What role should recycled-content products play in your design work?

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At first glance, using recycled-content building products seems like a win-win proposition. Diverting waste from landfills is a noble deed, and saving natural resources is equally commendable. No wonder green advocates push this specification strategy.

“The materials in our recycling bins ... are the raw materials for recycled-content products,” argues the Santa Cruz, Calif.–based nonprofit environmental group Ecology Action. Incorporating recycled-content building materials, the group says, reduces waste, and helps eliminate pollution.

The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery’s economic argument says that buying these products begets markets for the collected materials that are used to manufacture new products, which creates jobs and strengthens the economy. Even LEED for Homes, in section MR 2.2, advocates products containing recycled content.

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But like most choices associated with sustainable building, the issue of using products derived from waste is murky. All recycled-content products aren’t created equal: A product might be made from waste, but it might have off-gassing properties or it may require more maintenance. As a result, architects must spec carefully.

Even architects with a known affinity for sustainable design and products view the current marketplace with wariness. “Recycled-content products are a very small part of my work,” says Jeff Sties, AIA, LEED AP, principal of SUNBIOSIS in Charlottesville, Va. Sties, a former materials researcher for William McDonough + Partners, says the market for such products is better than it used to be but he believes more needs doing. Frankly, he adds, “There aren’t a lot of products that I consider to be good enough.”

Eric Corey Freed, LEED AP, principal of organicARCHITECT in San Francisco and Palm Springs, Calif., tends to agree. “This might surprise people, but using recycled-content products is pretty low on my priority list” when doing a house, he says. The approach sounds good in theory, he explains, but may not always be viable in practice. “There’s a disconnect between what’s advocated and what’s best, and it comes from wanting to promote green products,” he explains. “Oftentimes we are putting things in our houses we shouldn’t be or recycling things that shouldn’t be recycled.” As an example, Freed points to flooring that’s made from vulcanized rubber or recycled-waste tires. “It’s fine for outdoor use, but it shouldn’t be used inside because of air quality issues.”

Indoor pollution is a major concern for the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute, an industry-independent nonprofit that establishes acceptable standards for building materials and other products. According to founder Marilyn Black, LEED AP, the institute isn’t fully convinced of the merits of some of the products being marketed as recycled. “While we fully support efforts to use products made from recycled content, it’s critical that we evaluate and understand the potential health impacts of these products before using them,” she says. Flyash is but one example. Used in concrete, flyash is widely believed to be safe because it’s “locked” into the cured concrete. But it should not be used in drywall or ceiling tiles, the group says, because the heavy metals in the ash could be released into the indoor air in the form of dust.

AMD Architecture principal Angela M. Dean, AIA, LEED AP, definitely considers her client’s health when she specs products, but she says other issues—durability, life cycle cost, environmental impact—come into play as well. “We typically place recycled products higher on the list than non-recycled, but only if they meet the previous criteria,” the Salt Lake City–based architect explains.

Doug Graybeal, AIA, principal of Graybeal Architects in Carbondale, Colo., also takes a holistic approach to his material decisions. He considers recycled-content products in his equation, but other factors take priority. “We’re always looking at salvaged, reclaimed, recycled-content, and recyclable materials, but we also look at whether or not it’s recycled at the same level at the end of its life,” he says. Material comparisons also must consider factors such as “what kinds of chemicals are included in the content,” he adds.