On the Road to a More Sustainable Future
Julie Anne Geyer
Imagine a world where all commercial buildings and building products are manufactured from non-hazardous, renewable materials, and provide more than 40 years of unparalleled weathering performance. Carbon emissions are on the decline. Landfills are becoming a thing of the past. The oceans are a bright, brilliant blue, and global warming is now written in the history books rather than dooming future generations.
Unfortunately, that is not the current picture of the world we live in today. But why? Utilizing recyclable resources is not new to the marketplace. In fact, people have been incorporating recycled materials into products for decades. So why aren’t manufacturers capitalizing more on the sustainability movement?
The answer is more complex than building owners and consumers may realize. The world of sustainability is a multifaceted moving mechanism that requires each part to work together seamlessly and cohesively. Over the years, manufacturers have made huge strides in the sustainability arena, discovering new and innovative ways to use recycled materials in products without compromising performance, while also providing environmental benefits. But like most movements, there are some roadblocks hindering the building envelope industry from springing forward to a more sustainable future.
Supply and Demand
First, it’s important to remember that recycling is a business, with economics driven by supply and demand. So what often drives a manufacturer’s demand for a material is the consumer’s demand for the end product.The movement to eliminate plastic straws is a great example of how businesses have responded to the millennial generation’s demand for compostable straws. Plastic straws are made from polypropylene, a recyclable plastic. However, due to their lightweight and small size, they are often lost or diverted when going through the mechanical sorter. Thus, plastic straws often get tossed in the garbage, end up in landfills, and pollute the ocean. It was through education and social media that consumers were made aware of how much damage a small straw can do to marine life. Nonprofits, lawmakers, and businesses such as Starbucks have now made commitments to eliminate plastic straws entirely, which, in turn, increased the demand for reusable or compostable straws.
The cost of raw materials and, by association, the final product, is also a factor in choosing sustainable solutions. Raw material suppliers have spent years improving upon their manufacturing processes to ensure the product is pure, and produced with maximum efficiency at a low cost. So, in introducing a new recyclable material to the market, they are often competing against optimized processes that have stood the test of time, and that have a proven track record of success. For example, virgin polymers that have not been exposed to UV or weathering are more likely to last longer. They are also less expensive than their recyclable counterpart. This forces building owners to choose between sustainability and cost. And, unfortunately, sustainability is fighting a much tougher battle. Industry experts report that the top reason building owners turn to less green products is cost.
As building owners begin to demand more green products, raw material suppliers will be forced to investigate new ways to produce recyclable materials at a reasonable cost, which will allow sustainability to be more readily accessible to the market.
Truly Sustainable Products
In the building industry, one of the largest collective and continually growing changes for the sustainability movement is the switch from solvent-based to water-based materials. This switch provides multiple benefits, including low odor, being more environmentally friendly, having less VOCs and, as a bonus to building owners, they cost less to manufacture. Despite those advantages, solvent-based products are still prevalent in the industry today due to their long history and proven performance.
The initial wave of water-based products was met with some resistance and skepticism from the building industry. In the beginning, contractors would commonly apply these products the same way as solvent-based systems, which inevitably led to product failures and a bad reputation. Over the years, scientists have researched new formulations to make water-based coatings perform the same as, or better than, solvent-based coatings. And the technology is only getting better. But with the demand from consumers and the constant push from environmental agencies to reduce VOCs even further, manufacturers are — in a sense — fighting an uphill battle. They are not only trying to continually improve the performance of water-based products, but they also have to work hard to change the narrative that exists in the industry that water-based products won’t perform as well as solvent-based ones.
As the push to reduce VOCs even further and invent new products that do not contain harmful solvents continues, the development of two-component systems is becoming more prevalent. This is worthy of noting because two-component systems require more detailed technical data sheets, surface preparation, and application parameters for contractors. An overall looming concern for the building envelope industry is the ability to find skilled labor, and the resulting cost it will take on their business to find the manpower.
As manufacturers work to develop new, green products, they have to keep both the installer and building owner in mind. When new systems are introduced into the market, they commonly require additional training to help contractors understand how the surface preparation and application is different than its competing product, similar to the switch from solvent-based to water-based systems. As contractors try to mitigate increasing labor costs, they often look for products they know will work, are easy to apply, and require the least amount of manpower. What this means is that as manufacturers look to bring more sustainable products to the market, they must keep in mind the challenges today’s contractors face.
Another roadblock manufacturers have to overcome when trying to develop sustainable products is making sure the recyclable materials are used in the most efficient way to maximize product performance. It is important to remember that recycled materials have commonly already been exposed to sunlight, the elements, and have been processed through multiple heat cycles — meaning the integrity of the polymer and binder system have already been compromised. For example, using recycled pop bottles for surfacing on a roof membrane is not ideal for direct exposure. A more suitable application would be on the backside of a membrane, or as a component in an interply adhesive, because there is no need for UV stability.
Another example is replacing fillers with more renewable options, such as crushed oyster shells. Manufacturers are continuing to explore ways to successfully incorporate more renewable materials into their products, but the process takes time.
So how can coating and waterproofing/roofing manufacturers bridge the gap between performance and sustainability? Consumers and manufacturers want the same thing — sustainable, reliable, high-performance products. But consumers need to understand that the road to sustainability is not as easy as replacing this non-renewable component with a renewable one. Also, the life cycle and overall performance of the product is mutually as important; inexpensive products with a low life-cycle cost will end up in landfills because they’ll need to be replaced two to three times as often compared to the higher-performing, longer life-cycle option. By getting consumers more involved and making them more aware of building products and the ways they can benefit the environment, the demand for these high-performance, sustainable solutions will increase, which will bring more options to the marketplace.
Once the demand increases, theoretically, the cost should decline. Manufacturers play a critical role in helping to educate building owners, architects, and contractors on the benefits or hazards associated with the products they are using, and which options will provide the lowest environmental footprint from a life-cycle analysis standpoint. Transparency will be paramount in forging the path to a more sustainable future.