The construction industry has a significant negative impact on the environment. To mitigate this harm and improve sustainability, many builders in the sector have turned to recyclable materials.

The use of recyclables decreases the consumption of natural resources to produce new items, cuts down on the creation of greenhouse gases, and results in energy savings. For example, if all concrete and asphalt generated each year in the U.S. were recycled, it would save the energy equivalent of 1 billion gallons of gasoline. That’s the same as removing more than 1 million cars from the road.

Building with recyclable materials also eliminates the need to send waste to landfills. The result is less land required for these spaces, along with a reduction in environmental issues associated with disposal. For instance, construction and demolition debris can produce hydrogen sulfide, a colorless, rotten-smelling gas that’s poisonous to humans. Recycling materials and turning them into new products prevents the formation of this gas.

The cost savings are also considerable – both for those operating and maintaining landfills and companies getting rid of materials. Recycling old items typically costs less than standard disposal. Plus, construction firms can hold onto these products to use in future projects.

Building Houses From Recyclable Materials: A house built with recyclable materials
A house built with recyclable materials. Photo: Christoph Rupprecht on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Recyclable Materials Available for Green Construction

If you’re a builder looking to use recyclable materials in your projects, there are plenty of options to choose from, including:

  • Steel
  • Cork
  • Glass
  • Plastic
  • Concrete
  • Bamboo
  • Sheep’s wool
  • Reclaimed wood

Steel is the most recycled material in the world, with 98% avoiding landfills. Steel made from scrap saves iron, coal, and limestone, along with reducing carbon emissions.

Wood, another common recyclable, is a high embodied-energy material because of the power required to produce it. However, reclaiming and reusing wood reduces its embodied energy. Plus, it can offer numerous building purposes, such as structural framing, siding, flooring, and cabinetry. An alternative to reclaimed wood is bamboo, as it grows faster than hardwood trees, making it a rapidly renewable resource.

Clear glass is another infinitely recyclable material. Colored glass, along with items that receive heat treatment, lamination, or coating, is unsuitable for reuse. However, builders can downcycle it as an aggregate in place of gravel or stone. Glass can also find its way into mixtures for ceramic countertops and concrete.

Past Projects That Utilize Recyclable Materials

The use of recyclable materials in construction is not a new concept. Many successful projects have already recognized the benefits.

One townhouse in Rotterdam, a city in the Netherlands, is made entirely from recyclable materials. StoneCycling, a Dutch company involved in the project, collected 15 tons of ceramics, clay, and glass from around the country, ground them up and turned them into bricks. The resulting four-story building is nearly 15 feet wide by almost 30 feet deep, with a floorplan of around 393 square feet.

If you head south to Santa Catarina in Brazil, you’ll find a treehouse built from remnants of demolished houses, with materials including glass bottles, wood beams, and ceramic tiles. The space overlooks the ocean, can sleep up to five people, and even has internet and cable TV. The builder of the treehouse now rents the eco-friendly structure out on Airbnb.

In Mumbai, India, passersby can’t ignore the luxury home built from the doors and windows of demolished houses. Other recycled materials in the building include century-old salvaged columns, flooring made from old beams, metal pipe leftovers, fabric waste, and recycled slivers of cut stone. The house has five bedrooms, five bathrooms, a staff quarters, a rooftop garden, and an underground rainwater retention tank.

Taos, New Mexico, is home to a community of buildings called Earthships, cave-like structures made from empty beer cans, discarded tires, glass, and other recyclables. Each house has solar panels, a self-sustaining water supply, a greenhouse, indoor fishpond, and wind generators. While many live in these buildings full time, renters can also spend the night and try out an off-the-grid living.

The Future of Recyclables in Construction

Building with recyclable materials offers a multitude of environmental and economic benefits. Construction firms that adopt this tactic can increase the sustainability of its operations and capture the imaginations of environmentalists worldwide. If you’re a builder, consider using the recyclables above in your next project.

Holly Welles
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