Q: I've been wondering about this for awhile. When considering building materials or products, which is better? To go with a recycled content material or a natural material? Which is the greener option? On the one hand, you're reusing something, but on the other hand, you're keeping things real and simple. What do you think?
Sent by Tom
Editor: We think this is a great question, but the answer is not cut and dried. Natural products like wood and wool can be treated with chemicals (formaldehydes, fire retardants, etc) that make them ecologically and environmentally unsafe. On the other hand a product made with recycled plastic keeps it out of the landfill (for a time anyway); however, there can be problems with manipulating materials to fulfill functions they were never intended to fulfill. William McDonough from Cradle to Cradle explains it this way:
The creative use of downcycled materials for new products can be misguided, despite good intentions. For example, people may feel they are making an ecologically sound choice by buying and wearing clothing made of fibers from recycled plastic bottles. But the fibers from plastic bottles contain toxins such as antimony, catalytic residues, ultraviolet stabilizers, plasticizers, and antioxidants, which were never designed to lie next to human skin. Using downcycled paper as insulation is another current trend. But additional chemicals (such as fungicides to prevent mildew) must be added to make downcycled paper suitable for insulation, intensifying the problems already caused by toxic inks and contaminants.
In all of these cases, the agenda to recycle has superceded other design considerations. Just because a material is recycled does not automatically make it ecologically benign, especially if it was not designed specifically for recycling. Blindly adopting superficial environmental approaches without fully understanding their effects can be no better—and perhaps even worse— than doing nothing.
Readers, what do you think?