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How we get there

We need to recycle and reuse as much of the existing stuff as possible and make sure that new stuff is made in sustainable ways. It is important to keep in mind something called Cradle to Cradle ideas. Cradle to Cradle refers to the idea that the impact of every material should be considered from the beginning of it's life as either a raw material or recycled materials to the end of it's life as another new product. Every step along the way, we must look at the energy, water, and material inputs as well as any harmful characteristics of the product itself or any byproducts or processes used in that step.

There is no reason for materials to go straight from the store to the landfill
This leads to a number of interesting conclusions, such as the idea that for the first 40 or so uses, a disposable paper cup is better than a ceramic mug if you take into account the energy used to create and wash the mug. So if you are likely to use a mug less than 40 times before you break it or leave it in the cupboard, you're better off just using paper and throwing it away every time. While these sorts of analysis are difficult to do, there are a number of basics you can keep in mind when searching for sustainable products.

Choosing Sustainable Products

The following criteria are all important in the selection of sustainable materials and products, in building materials, furniture, and the items you buy at the mall:
  • Energy Used:
    • The energy used in the creation of a product from all steps from raw material to end product must be taken into account when deciding between products. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to know for sure how much energy went into something, but this is where something called a Life Cycle Energy Analysis can often be helpful. This takes into account the energy used during the entirety of a product's life and there are a number of common products that someone has already done the math on.
  • Resource Efficiency:
    • Packaging: Probably the biggest thing that we can do to reduce the amount of water, energy, and resources consumed by our stuff is to reduce the amount of packaging it comes in. There is no reason for materials to go straight from the store to the landfill.
    • Recycle Content: Products with postindustrial or postconsumer content, with postconsumer being preferred because they have been already consumed once, rather than being the byproduct of the production of other materials.
    • Availability: Green materials are natural, plentiful, and/or renewable, they are harvested from sustainably managed sources and are hopefully certified by an independent, industry-accepted third party.
    • Resource Efficient Manufacturing: The products were produced in a manufacturing process that was mindful of sustainability issues, taking advantage of opportunities to lower energy usage, use sustainable energy sources, and lower packaging and waste.
    • Locally Available: Products would ideally have a short transportation change throughout the course of their lives, limiting both costs and energy usage from transportation.
    • Salvaged, Refurbished, or Remanufactured: Even better than materials that have been recycled into new products, are products that are reused in their original form, without needing to go through an energy intensive process to be remade into something useful.
    • Durable: Green products should be able to last longer than average products so that they do not need to be replaced as often as other products.
    • Reusable or Recyclable: Green products will be easily taken apart and reused or recycled at the end of their lives.
    • Recycled or Recyclable Packaging: Products should ideally be enclosed in packaging that is produced from recycled and/or recyclable materials.
  • Water Efficiency:
    • Low Embodied Water: In an ideal world, a product has no net usage of water in its life cycle. Extraction of materials, manufacture, installation, cleaning and maintenance require no net water use or use closed loop water recycling systems. Optimal products avoid use of delivered potable water or extraction of water from ground or surface sources. They may use reclaimed water supplies or collected rainwater.
    • Water Quality: The manufacturing process of a product should have little to no negative effects on the water quality around the plant. The product itself should have little to no negative effects on water quality when it is disposed of.
  • Indoor Air Quality:
    • Low or Non-toxic: Materials that emit few or no carcinogens, reproductive toxicants, or irritants are better for the home environment and the larger environment in general.
    • Minimal Chemical Emissions: Products that have minimal emissions of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are also safer and better for the home environment
    • Moisture Resistant: Products that are moisture resistant will inhibit the growth of biological contaminants in buildings.
    • Healthfully Maintained: Green products should be maintained and cleaned using non-toxic and low-VOC methods.

Construction Recycling

In addition to the everyday materials we use, construction recycling can have a large impact on sustinability. Our buildings are likely to be the most energy intensive products we consume in our lives, so recycling parts from them is very important. Concrete, wood, drywall, asphalt shingles, asphalt pavement, metal, and cardboard can all be recycled and currently make up 70-95% of discarded construction materials. Recycling these materials is not only good for the environment, but also saves money on buying new materials and can reduce material hauling and disposal costs. There is also a premium that may become more valuable with the increase in demand for LEED buildings. There are four different ways construction products can come from recycled sources:
  • Post-consumer material that comes from household recycling that has been reprocessed to a new product.
  • Waste material from industrial processes. For example, fly ash, which is a byproduct from coal firing, can replace up to 35% of the Portland cement used to make concrete when mixed with other ingredients such as sand and gravel.
  • Scraps from waste of a manufacturing process or that are rejected by quality control can be reused to create a new product, such as scraps of wood that are used to create particle board.
  • Waste from demolition projects, by any company, that has not already been reprocessed can be reused in its original form. Doors, windows, cabinets, etc. can all be reused when a building is demolished.

Life Cycle Energy Analysis of Cups
Life cycle energy analysis of paper, styrofoam, glass, plastic, and ceramic cups.
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California Integrated Waste Management Board
California Integrated Waste Management Board website on green building materials
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Pharos Lens
Sustainable materials rating guide.
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Construction Business Owner - Recycled Materials
Article on how construction businesses can use recycled materials
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Consumer Energy Center - Green Construction
Green construction practices
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