Plastics Are Critical To Creating a Sustainable Built Environment

Recently at the International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas, SPI, which bills itself as the trade association for the plastics industry, announced a new report, titled “Plastics Market Watch: Building and Construction”. The report is the fourth in a series from SPI that looks at the consumer uses of plastics, of which the construction industry is the second largest behind only packaging materials.

Speaking to industry publication Plastics Technology, SPI President and CEO William Carteaux said: “From floors to roofs, inside and outside of walls, plastics are a go-to product on construction sites. Innovation in the plastics industry to improve and diversify products is matched by the building and construction sector’s pace to find, and use, new solutions to address fundamental issues like structural integrity, energy savings, recycling, and cost saving.”

The report highlights the many applications of plastic-based materials in construction, including insulation, roofing, plumbing, wall coverings, windows, composite lumber, house wrap and many more. In the section discussing insulation, the report says: “Whether its spray polyurethane foam (SPF) in the attic or rigid foam polyiso board in the walls, polyurethane-based systems offer durability, energy savings and moisture control. When used for retrofit situations they also help reduce the amount of building waste sent to landfills. In walls, behind walls and under floors, the use of polystyrene foams can provide significant energy efficiency.”

SPI is not the only one extolling the benefits of plastic building materials to improve the comfort and efficiency of the built environment. Last year, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) built an energy-efficient tiny house as part of its Plastics Make it Possible campaign. The tiny house was built almost exclusively using plastic materials, including vinyl windows, solar shingles and polyiso insulation in the walls. Discussing the use of polyiso in the tiny hose, ACC said: “This stiff plastic foam board (polyiso) was applied to the outside of the tiny house walls (under the siding) to help prevent untreated air from even touching the wall materials/framing. Rmax’s Thermasheath-3 insulates the house and can reduce the energy needed for heating and cooling.”

Despite the obvious energy-efficiency and green benefits of plastic-based materials, not everyone is on board with their expanded market share. Some in the green-building industry feel the petrochemical nature of plastic materials automatically lends them dubious environmental qualities. While there are concerns with the recyclability and disposal of plastic building materials, overall they have contributed a net positive benefit to the goal of making our homes and businesses more efficient and sustainable. In fact, the environmental benefits of polyiso have been well documented in PIMA’s Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) published last year. According to the EPD, “The energy savings potential of polyiso roof and wall insulation over a typical 60-year building life span is equal to up to 47 times the initial energy required to produce, transport, install, maintain, and eventually remove and dispose of the insulation.”

It is obvious we are only on the cusp of what is possible to create a sustainable and environmentally friendly built environment. To achieve this goal, architects and specifiers will need to use plastic and traditional construction materials to design high-performance buildings.

About the Author

Jared O. Blum
Jared O. Blum is Washington counsel for the EPDM Roofing Association.

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