Recycled building materials can cut down on the environmental impact of construction projects when they are chosen wisely, with an awareness of the distance traveled, resource use involved in their production, and composition. Many large communities have a facility or facilities that handle reclaimed and recycled materials, and it may also be possible to go directly through a contractor for some products. Consumers who want to use recycled building materials should be aware of the risk of greenwashing, where companies make environmental claims that are not actually backed by the products they produce.
It is important to distinguish between recycled and reclaimed or salvaged materials. Recycled building materials are made with some percentage of post-consumer content and can include things like glass, engineered wood products, ceramics, and so forth. Reclaimed and salvaged materials are used materials that are removed during demolition and other activities, cleaned up, and sold for reuse. It is possible to use a mixture of recycled and reclaimed materials, depending on the need.
One thing to consider when evaluating recycled building materials is the percentage of recycled material. If, for example, a homeowner wants to use wallpaper made with recycled fibers, there is a significant difference between a product with 5% post-consumer content and one made with 45%. The more recycled material, the less new resources were involved in the production of the material. For materials like engineered woods, it may be possible to attain a very high percentage of recycled content.
Another issue is the labor that goes into recycling. If materials need to be transported across vast distances and heavily processed before they can be used to make recycled building materials, they may not be environmentally friendly. Companies may also engage in activities like bleaching for aesthetic reasons, in which case the end product may be less environmentally friendly than it would have been. Consumers may want to research the recycling process to learn more and determine whether a recycled, reclaimed, or brand new product would be most appropriate.
Transportation can also be a factor with recycled building materials. The distance traveled can have an impact on the carbon footprint of the product, and it may be possible to buy a more environmentally friendly alternative. Some companies offset their transit with carbon credits and may also strive for carbon neutrality in other aspects of their operations. Any environmental claims made should be evaluated by checking with the source, such as a certifying agency, to find out what kinds of standards are set and how the standards are enforced.