Choosing green materials

Choosing green materials

By Maggie Leslie on 03/16/2009

Start with simple criteria 
There are so many products and companies out there that claim to be green, it can be difficult to tell which products really are green and which are not. The truth is, there aren’t many products that are completely sustainable. Instead, we have to base our decisions on a list of criteria. TheEnvironmental Building News’ Greenspec® directory suggests several basic categories, and I have added a few others worth considering, including products that:

  • are made with salvaged, recycled or agricultural waste 
  • conserve natural resources
  • save energy or water
  • reduce toxic emissions and contribute to a safe healthy indoor environment 
  • are locally manufactured products
  • support fair-trade practices
  • are carbon neutral and/or minimally packaged

A great way to assess the true impact of a product is to look at it in terms of a life-cycle assessment, which analyzes the product from resource extraction through production, use and disposal. According to Greenspec®, a life-cycle assessment is “the science of examining the environmental and health impacts of products … . A green product is one whose life cycle impacts are low.” Unfortunately, life-cycle assessments are very difficult to do using comprehensive and consistent protocols, and therefore aren’t yet widely available.

Products made with salvaged, recycled or agricultural waste 
This category comes first because it is always better to reuse and recycle existing products before creating new ones. Considering that buildings create 136 million tons of construction and demolition waste in the U.S. per year (approximately 2.8 pounds per person daily), efforts to reuse and recycle could have a huge impact on reducing waste.

Salvaged flooring, for example, is beautiful, and it adds character to a home that new materials could not. Some products can reduce the need for other products. For instance, concrete floors can be stained to look very attractive, and there is no need for an additional layer of material.

Next, look for recycled-content materials. Post-consumer recycled content means the waste used can no longer be used for its original intended purpose, such as carpet made of old soda bottles. Pre-consumer or post-industrial both mean waste diverted during the manufacturing process. Whenever possible, choose post-consumer over post-industrial materials. 

Products that conserve natural resources 
Products made from rapidly renewable materials are the next best options. These materials can be harvested, and they renew themselves quickly (typically in less than 10 years)—unlike hardwoods, which can take hundreds of years to return, if ever. Cork and bamboo floorings are examples of products made from rapidly renewable resources (though the products are shipped great distances, and some processing methods are not environmentally friendly).

Some lumber has been third-party certified to indicate it has been sustainably harvested. The two most common certifications are Forest Stewardship Council certified and Sustainable Forestry Initiative certified. The latter is second-party certified, not third, and is currently not recognized as a sustainably harvested wood by the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED standards, though SFI is a good option if FSC is not available.

Durable products are also in the “natural resource conservation” category. If you build the greenest home in America, and it rots from moisture problems and then the materials are sent to the landfill, the world is no better off. This is why some people consider even vinyl siding to be a green product. It is toxic to produce—with a high “embodied energy” (meaning it’s energy-intensive to manufacture)—and it may never biodegrade, but it is very durable and low maintenance.

Products that save energy or water 
Some products are considered green not because of their raw materials, but because once you install them, they reduce the environmental footprint of the building. This includes materials such as low-flow fixtures that save water, or insulation and light bulbs that reduce the energy needs of a building. Look for the Energy Star label on lighting and appliance options and the Environmental Protection Agency’s new WaterSense label on low-flow, water-saving faucets, fixtures and toilets. Once you have reduced your overall energy and water needs, consider renewable energy equipment that actually produces energy, such as photovoltaic panels.

Products that reduce toxic emissions and contribute to a safe, healthy indoor environment 
Natural and minimally processed materials typically have less chemical additives that pose a threat to human and environmental health. For example, formaldehyde is common in many engineered products because it acts as a binding agent, but there are increasing efforts to replace it with less toxic agents and methods. A manufacturing plant in Old Fort, N.C., for example, provides a local source for cabinet-grade formaldehyde-free plywood.

Almost every chemically based product, from paints to adhesives, is now available in a low-VOC (volatile organic compound) version. Furthermore, there are natural and locally manufactured products available. GreenSeal is a third-party certification to look for; it’s available on many products, such as paints and finishes. Additionally, Scientific Certification Systems has certified many low-toxic materials through its Environmentally Preferable Products and Sustainable Choice certification programs. Filtration products that can reduce indoor-air pollution are also in this category. In addition to GreenSeal, look for Greenguard certification on products such as insulation, Green Label certification on carpets and the SCS indoor-air certifications on flooring and furniture.

Fair trade, fair wage, carbon neutral and local 
This category may come last, but it is certainly not the least important. Many green materials fulfill the environmental tenant of the definition of sustainability, but true sustainability addresses social and economic sustainability as well. Purchasing products that are produced by companies that pay workers a fair wage and/or that support our local economy means growing a sustainable economy and a sustainable community. Plus, locally produced products help cut our carbon footprint by reducing the impact of transportation and support our local economy.

Currently, we can’t buy everything locally, but you can still choose products that are making a positive impact somewhere, like developing sustainable economies or creating social equity in other countries. Many companies are now purchasing Carbon Offsets or Renewable Energy Credits, claiming that their products are produced with 100 percent renewable energy. This is a great step, but make sure their claims are legitimate and that they are working to minimize their impact, as well as offset it. 

Now that we have addressed the different criteria for materials, let’s apply them to insulation as an example.

Spray foam: saves energy, contributes to a healthy indoor environment 
Blown cellulose: saves energy, recycled content, avoids toxic emissions 
Recycled blue jean batts: saves energy, recycled content, avoids toxic emissions, local 
Formaldehyde-free fiberglass: saves energy, some recycled content, avoids toxic emissions

Now apply these criteria to the needs of your own home. Could moisture be an issue, or are you worried about drafts? Consider spray foam insulation: It creates an airtight envelope and inhibits mold growth. Are you most concerned about your environmental impact? Consider recycled blue jean batts: There’s one brand manufactured in Hickory, N.C. Too expensive? Consider cellulose: It’s recycled and easily installed.

Unfortunately, when it comes to green products, there are few perfect ones. But by considering the impacts of your choices, you can reduce the impact on the environment substantially, plus create (or renovate) a healthy and unique home.


Maggie Leslie is program director of the WNC Green Building Council. She can be reached or at (828) 254-1995.


Greenspec® product standards at a glance 
Products made with salvaged, recycled or agricultural waste content 

  • Salvaged products
  • Products with post-consumer recycled content
  • Products with pre-consumer recycled content 
  • Products made from agricultural waste material

Products that conserve natural resources 

  • Products that reduce material use 
  • Products with exceptional durability or low maintenance 
  • Rapidly renewable products

Products that save energy or water

  • Building components that reduce heating and cooling loads 
  • Equipment that conserves energy 
  • Renewable energy
  • Fixtures and equipment that conserve water

Products that avoid toxic or other emissions 

  • Natural or minimally processed 
  • Alternatives to ozone depleting substances 
  • Alternatives to hazardous products
  • Reduces or eliminates pesticide treatments 
  • Reduces stormwater pollution
  • Reduces impacts from construction/demolition

Products that contribute to a safe, healthy indoor environment 

  • Products that don’t release significant pollutants into the building 
  • Products that block introduction, production or spread of contaminants 
  • Products that remove indoor pollutants
  • Products that warn occupants of health hazards
  • Products that improve light quality
  • Products that help control noise
  • Products that enhance community well-being