Increasing sustainability in the construction industry has risen to the forefront over the past few years, and finding alternatives for plastics is a hot topic that has garnered much debate. Converting to plant-based building materials and replacing single-use plastics completely will be challenging. For example, builders should check multiple components to commit using sustainable materials as a permanent solution.
The Plastic Debate
The construction industry uses plastics in a variety of ways during the construction process. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), expanded polystyrene (EPS), and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) is the most popular plastic materials in the industry. Builders use plastics as insulation, and to make seals, windows, doors, pipes, cables, and more. Similarly, thermoplastics are used for HVAC applications.
The good news is that not all plastics are detrimental to the environment, and the turnover that occurs in the construction industry is far more infrequent than in the consumer products sector. Many of the plastic materials used in the building industry are for more permanent fixtures, which means that it’s far less likely to become marine litter. Cost and accessibility to products are also an essential part of the conversation. Plastic is currently far more cost-effective, accessible, and reliable than sustainable substitutes.
The unknown is a significant obstacle in converting to permanent, sustainable solutions for construction leaders. The potential to fail, increase costs, and bottleneck projects are high. The significance of the waste stream generated by plastic in the construction industry is also far lower than other areas in the industry that contribute to CO2 emissions. The polymer film is the most significant runner-up when it comes to a component strong enough to replace plastic. However, mainstream production may not come to fruition in the near future.
Other Plant-Based Building Materials
Currently, there are a wide variety of eco-friendly options on the market that can be used, such as timber, bamboo, straw bale, and even dirt, to construct buildings. Using plant-based materials instead of traditional materials could be a sustainable solution, but there are many factors to consider.
Utilizing sustainable building and insulation materials can increase energy efficiency and add a few benefits. For example, a properly constructed straw bale wall is much more flame retardant than typical lumber. Also, hempcrete stores heat more efficiently than regular concrete. Using plant-based materials also lowers CO2 emissions and can improve a company’s corporate reputation.
Putting plant-based materials to use requires training. There’s a learning curve for contractors and builders that require time and money. Extensive upkeep is also required, and the same efforts are not needed for steel and lumber buildings. Laws also need time to catch up to sustainable innovation in order to craft building codes that include sustainable materials.
Although the future of the green building is here, the transition to widespread usage of sustainable materials will require both further innovation and adoption. The construction industry is responsible for about 38% of CO2 emissions and this number is steadily increasing. Shifting the construction sector into the low-carbon lane while maintaining the integrity of buildings is currently an active process. That is, pushing business leaders, scientists, and governments to work collectively to find a solution.
Abigail Baker is a writer with Happy Writers, Co.