18 August 2021
New Tricks for Old Plastic: Building Materials for the New Millennium
From 3D printing to building materials, plastic is sticking its nose in everywhere. Here’s a look at some of the smart ways the AEC industry is repurposing this frequently unpopular substance, earning the thumbs-up from environmentalists, consumers and bean counters alike.
While the world scrambles for solutions to our plastic problem, the AEC industry is alive with new ideas for old plastic. A plethora of construction products — either fully formed from recycled plastic or containing recycled plastic as a major component — regularly arrive on the market. Some of them actually have pretty stupendous impacts on both the environment and the consumer, which generally makes the moneymen happy too. Let’s dive in.
Life cycle assessment and solid waste management consulting service, Franklin Associates, Ltd, undertook a one-year study and determined that plastic building and construction materials saved 467.2 trillion Btu’s (British thermal units) of energy over alternative construction materials in the course of that same year. Data made available by the US Department of Energy and the US Census Bureau pertaining to this same time period indicated that the energy saved by using plastic building and construction materials in one year was sufficient to meet the average annual energy needs of 4.6 million US households. This is equal to every household in eleven states (which accounts for twenty percent of the states in the US): Arkansas, Hawaii, Indiana, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.
So, what kind of products are we talking about? Here are a few examples:
Protective Plastic: Turn a Negative into a Positive
In an ideal world, there’d be a multi-tentacled organization, combing the globe for plastic trash . . .
Plastic roofing products can last for decades, some lasting as much as 50 years or more. This is substantially longer than the average lifespan of approximately 20 years for a regular asphalt shingle roof (depending on the manufacturer). Environmentalists frequently cite the length of time plastic takes to break down as a negative, but by that rationale, in terms of roofing, plastics will form a highly durable material for any home, with impressive longevity.
Some roof tiles are designed to imitate the classic look of slate, but the plastic version requires significantly less maintenance. Additionally, plastic or polymer roofs also have higher than usual weather ratings, which means that they’re great at surviving severe winters when storms and hail are common.
Although plastic or polymer roofing is one of the least sustainable materials on the market, they make up for this by being very energy efficient. Plastic roofing, similar to metal roofs, can reflect heat rather than absorbing it, which means that your home stays delightfully cool during the summer and cozily warm during the winter. This translates to a noticeable impact on energy-savings. Don’t dismiss the concept — perhaps anticipating that it will look cheap and trashy — simply because it’s plastic.
Great attention to detail results in molds that are cast from top-quality natural materials, producing roofing options that mimic either hand-cut slate or hand-split cedar shakes, without the weight, cost, or the impact on the environment.
If you prefer the look of traditional clay tile to that of slate, there are multiple options on the market for you, including a translucent tile that we think could have interesting applications. A luxe look combined with energy-savings and the knowledge that your roof has kept a ton of plastic out of landfills or the ocean? Smart and sweet. We like that.
Research is being done into reinforcing concrete with plastic, which makes the concrete 15 percent stronger and helps reduce carbon emissions.
Let’s Not Get Prickly About Insulation
If you’re the one who has to go up into the attic to store and retrieve seasonal décor items such as the Christmas ornaments or the ghostly Halloween collection and you’ve got fiberglass insulation in your attic, yup, we know, we’ve been there, with the prickly palms and itchy knees. It may look like cotton candy, but it sure as heck doesn’t feel like it. Turns out that the dreaded “pink stuff” isn’t particularly environmentally friendly either.
Plastic insulation, counter-intuitively, is far more “green” than the pink stuff. For example, during its lifetime, plastic insulation saves more than 200 times the energy used in its manufacture, and its very high thermal efficiency contributes to visible savings on heating and cooling. We think that’s pretty cool, or warm, depending on the season! (Added bonus: No more prickly palms and itchy knees.)
A Panoply of Panels
Google informs us there is no collective noun for panels. Given the wide array of panels available for the construction industry, we’re suggesting “panoply.” It has four definitions in the dictionary, two of which don’t apply here, but the two that qualify do so beautifully: Panoply (noun) 1. something forming a protective covering; 2. a magnificent or impressive array. Quite so.
Do you need cladding for interior walls, exterior walls or a roof? How about all the above — an entire house fabricated from recycled plastic for under $300? Visionary Carlos Daniel González, founder of EcoDomum, is achieving precisely that in Mexico, where a single small home removes two tons of plastic from the garbage-stream.
The AEC industry is alive with new ideas for old plastic.
Maybe you’re looking for something more high-end such as the textured 3D wall panels that have become so popular recently. What about a wet environment, such as in food processing or a car wash? You can bet there’s a product for that too. The list is literally endless and one could curate a massive catalog of goods in just this one category of building product alone.
Concrete, as covered in two previous articles (here and here), is the most popular man-made product on earth and is the second most in-demand material on earth after water. Now, research is being done into reinforcing concrete with plastic, which makes the concrete 15 percent stronger and helps reduce carbon emissions.
The creation of durable pavers that are made entirely of recycled plastic material is another project that is capturing attention, as seen in this video of a remarkable Kenyan woman, Nzambi Matee, winner of the Young Champion of the Earth Award in 2020.
Encouragingly, the list goes on, with everything from structural lumber, PVC windows, fencing, floor tiles and ceiling tiles to stain-resistant, color-fast carpeting made from recycled water bottles.
In an ideal world, there’d be a multi-tentacled organization, combing the globe for plastic trash, keeping it out of landfills and our oceans and turning it into affordable building materials, but to the best of our knowledge, no such entity exists. Until then, should the opportunity arise, try opting for some of the above earth-protecting building products when embarking on your next project.
Time: Another Valuable Commodity
While the environmentally conscious seek out ways to mitigate plastic’s impact on Earth, we know that it’s the CAD professionals and the good men and women of the AEC industry who are literally building the future.
We’d like to help you achieve that by saving you lots of valuable time, leaving you free to focus on bigger, more important things. Whether your platform is MicroStation, AutoCAD or Revit, we have productivity-boosting and frustration-ending tools that will help you complete projects faster with better final results that allow you to get out of the office earlier.
A single small home removes two tons of plastic from the garbage-stream.