Traditionally, materials were chosen based on cost, aesthetics, performance characteristics and delivery lead times. The sustainability and health aspects of materials were typically never a priority. Fortunately, over the last 20 years or so, this has changed and we’ve started to understand the importance of considering the sustainability properties of a material. More recently, we’ve also started considering the health impacts of the materials we use.
So what is a sustainable material? Let’s take a look.
A sustainable building material has been made with consideration given to its entire lifecycle
But what does this actually mean? When a material is made, from the beginning of its creation until it’s no longer needed, it follows these stages:
Lifecycle of a material
1. Extraction of raw materials
2. Manufacturing and processing
5. End of life
The birth of a material begins with the extracting or harvesting of raw materials. These raw materials are then transported, processed and manufactured into a finished material, which is transported to us (the consumer). The material is then installed or used in our homes and buildings. Finally, it’s end of life is when it’s no longer needed and it’s hopefully either recycled or reused. Sadly, however, most unwanted building materials end up in landfill and it becomes part of the enormous amount of construction waste that ends up in landfill every year.
All of these five stages use energy, water and new raw materials and each of the stages has its own set of environmental impacts, like production of greenhouse gases, use of toxic chemicals which often get released into the environment and degradation of habitat for wildlife.
Sustainable building materials are made with as little negative impact on the environment as possible, across the five stages of its lifecycle.
Sustainable building materials also consider the social factors involved in its production.
Did you know that many materials and products that we use today were made using modern slavery? Yes, slavery is still happening throughout the world today and it’s not just a horror from the past. It’s a modern-day horror. Modern slavery involves human trafficking, servitude, force or compulsory labour, child labour and sexual exploitation. It’s a horrible list isn’t it? And more horrible to think that something may have bought to renovate or build our homes with has contributed to a person being trapped in slavery.
A truly sustainable material will have been produced in a way which respects the environment AND the human rights of everyone involved. It won’t affect their health and it will have paid them fairly for their labour.
While we’re talking about people. Let’s look at population growth and how that’s going to affect the production of materials.
It’s been estimated that between the year 2000 and 2050 the world population will grow by a whopping 50%.
The global economic activity will grow by 500% and the global usage of energy and materials will grow by 300%.
This is an insane amount of growth in a relatively short period of time, which will cause massive amounts of environmental damage and destruction if we don’t make some changes to how we live and what we buy.
What can we do, and how can we buy sustainable building materials?
1. I like the idea of buying well and using less. Buy something which is durable and you can use for a long time. Don’t buy something with mindset of “I don’t care if it breaks/gets ruined/isn’t right because I’ll just throw it away and buy something new”. This has to stop. Buy something you love and keep it in your home forever.
2. Use recycled materials whenever possible. This includes reusing an existing material – like using reclaimed timber for your floorboards, or using a new material with recycled content in it.
3. If you can’t buy a recycled material, look for the most sustainable option you can afford. Ideally it should contain recycled content
4. Lastly, we should buy locally so we can reduce the amount of carbon emissions used in transportation of the materials and products we buy
→ These are steps we can all take, no matter whether we’re renovating, building a new home or maintaining our home.
Nadine is the founder and editor of Eco Edition and founder of the Eco Edition Design School. She’s an experienced interior designer, sustainable materials consultant, speaker and serial home renovator.