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Reclaimed Rigid Foam-Board Insulation: How Green Is It?

mrkawfey | Posted in Green Products and Materials on

Most posts about using reclaimed (sometimes referred to as recycled) rigid foam are about the cost, quality, performance or practicality of the product. I would love to hear some readers thoughts about the philosophy/responsibility of using it.

All of Martin’s writing has made me think about embodied energy as much as energy reduction. As I plan a renovation (feeling bad about throwing away parts of my house) I am considering using reclaimed rigid foam as one of the inputs. I have already used some in the past but only for cost reasons. Given what we know, I doubt I would buy new foam over other more environmentally friendly material, but what about reclaimed?

If enough people buy reclaimed foam, does it create enough market pressure for manufacturers to make more new stuff?
Is there so much available that it’s simply a matter or keeping it out of a landfill by using it in my house?
Would using a reclaimed foam be considered more environmentally friendly than using new “greener” materials?
Does it send the wrong message to the marketing department of Dupont that people really want foam boards?
Is the scope of this particular use-case so small that it really doesn’t matter?
For the diehard environmentalist, is anything really too small to not be worth debating?

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Replies

  1. Jon_R | | #1

    If accountants are doing their job, high selling prices for used foam has some effect on the decision to use more new foam (vs some greener alternative). And user demand for new foam directly influences the amount produced by manufacturers.

    > anything really too small

    Always allocate your environmental $ wisely. Many things reach the "it would be greener to just do X and then donate $Y to Z cause" point.

  2. brian_wiley | | #2

    There are a lot of questions in there that I’ve thought about myself at one point, but the one about ‘secondary markets’ is what’s occupied my thoughts lately.

    I have a vague recollection of someone on GBA stating that commercial roofs are on some sort of mandated replacement schedule. I don’t know if that’s true, but if there were a reason that commercial roofs were being made to cycle out their foam before it had reached its end of life then it would be a perfect fit for someone with a green building mentality.

    On the idea of secondary markets, my guess is that it really isn’t creating one based on the infrequent availability and struggle to reliably source as many of us have seen. I have a hard enough time getting new polyiso; finding reclaimed is like chasing a ghost.

  3. Expert Member
    BILL WICHERS | | #3

    Reclaimed foam is coming from upgrades and teardowns, so it creates not market forces on the manufacturer -- no matter how much people want reclaimed foam, no one is going to tear down their building just to satisfy that demand :-) Using reclaimed foam isn't going to make manufacturers make more new foam, so that's not really a concern here.

    Using any reclaimed materials is essentially a form of recycling, and a very good one at that -- there is no energy used to reprocess the materials aside from the energy used to transport them. It doesn't get much better than that! You're also keeping that material from going into the trash, which is another plus.

    Personally, I like to use reclaimed foam where I can. It's a greener option compared to using new material, and it's cheaper too, so it's a win-win.

    Remember also that there are some areas where rigid foam is really the best/only option, so in some cases your options are limited -- your choices become new or reclaimed rigid foam, basically.

    Bill

  4. mrkawfey | | #4

    >Using reclaimed foam isn't going to make manufacturers make more new foam, so that's not really a concern here.<

    >finding reclaimed is like chasing a ghost.<

    >On the idea of secondary markets, my guess is that it really isn’t creating one<

    In our area there are always Craigslist adds for warehouses with recycled foam. If demand for it is outpacing its availability then people who want it and can't get it are going to buy new.

    If I decide to use reclaimed XPS sheets in a place where I might have been able to use new rockwool then that amounts to X number of recycled sheets unavailable to someone who needs it

    >some areas where rigid foam is really the best/only option, so in some cases your options are limited -- your choices become new or reclaimed rigid foam<

    then that person buys new. Greener products see less demand for new (price goes up) less green products see more demand (price goes down), and so it goes.

    So, should I buy the "greenest when new" option wherever it will do the job? If demand is outpacing supply for recycled, then I'm not really saving a sheet from the landfill.

    Or should we consider only buying the recycled stuff that is destined for a landfill? Like off cuts and odd thicknesses that no one wants.

    Not trying to condemn anyone's opinion or pick a right answer, just putting thoughts on the table for discussion.

    1. Expert Member
      BILL WICHERS | | #5

      If someone is going to use rigid foam, they will buy new or reclaimed, that's correct, but if reclaimed is unavailable, that doesn't mean the demand for reclaimed foam has created additional demand for new foam -- it just means a buyer bought new INSTEAD of reclaimed. That buyer was going to buy one or the other anyway, no new demand was created.

      Reclaimed foam as a market DOES keep it from the landfill. That's a Good Thing -- why waste as useful product?

      I think you might be overthinking this a little. Reclaimed materials may reduce the demand for new materials, but they never increase that demand. Demand comes from a need to build something, reclaimed is just a different, and greener, source sometimes. If demand for reclaimed materials outstrips supply, new materials get used, but the reclaimed materials that WERE available DID offset some amount of demand for new materials, so the overall result is a reduced need to make new materials.

      Not trying to argue, just trying to clarify a bit. If you can get reclaimed material that will work for your project, then that's a plus, and I'd consider that to always be the greenest option compared to buying any type of new product. If you can't get reclaimed material, then pick the greenest of the new materials that will work for whatever your particular application is.

      Another thing to consider is to modify your design to use what reclaimed materials happen to be available to you. I do this commerical (I have a project right now doing this), since I save my customers money by using refurbished industrial equipment. Sometimes I will change the capacity of something a bit, or use two things instead of one, to be able to complete the project with the used equipment that happens to be available at the time. You can do the same thing with, for example, rigid foam. If you can't get the 2" thickness you want, maybe do a layer of 1/2" and a layer of 1-1/2" to get a total of 2". The more flexible you can be with how you build, the more options will be available to you to use reclaimed material.

      If you really want to get extreme, I've used reclaimed wire, pipe, floor, doors, and all kinds of equipment on commerical projects. I save my customers money, sometimes shorten lead times (reclaimed materials tend to be immediately available, new stuff often has a manufacturing lead time), and get to do a form of recylcing all in one shot. It's always a matter of what you need to accomplish, and what you can get at the time.

      Bill

  5. jameshowison | | #6

    It's an interesting thing to think about. If there was a demand effect increasing production of foam due to recycling, then one would see it in the budgeting for commercial projects at the time they decide to use foam. So any evidence on that? Any sign that commercial projects are discounting the cost of foam by the amount of money they would get from recycling it (when it needs to be removed?)

    I suppose another place one could see it would be in the cost of tearing off the materials, are contractors doing these jobs factoring being able to resell the foam they take off into lower prices? (ie $x per sq foot if I get to keep and sell the foam). Were those costs lower and if those are considered at time of initial build, then that would decrease the lifecycle costs of foam.

    Of course if something like wood fiber was the alternative for commercial production then as long as it is similarly recyclable and just as easy to remove then there wouldn't be an effect.

    But why are these roofs being pulled off anyway? Seems nuts.

    Another thing to consider is that your $$ can be used by providers of low embodied carbon materials to demonstrate market demand and customer numbers when they are seeking finance. One of those hard to think about impacts where every decision is minor but in aggregate they matter.

    1. brian_wiley | | #7

      >>Another thing to consider is that your $$ can be used by providers of low embodied carbon materials to demonstrate market demand and customer numbers when they are seeking finance. One of those hard to think about impacts where every decision is minor but in aggregate they matter.

      I think this is the bigger issue, at least for me. Even though my project budgets are a spit in the ocean compared to others, dollars matter more relative to a small producer like GoLabs or Havelock in terms of demonstrating that there is a market for it.

      I know that those products aren't always equivalent to foam, but when they are, I'll go out of my way to get them despite the premium price.

  6. kbentley57 | | #8

    Perhaps this is a different take on the situation -

    Use what saves you money, and works well. Your use of the reclaimed product is saving it from a landfill where it would otherwise go, and keeping you warm. A small project using 25 sheets of reclaimed insulation has effectively no real impact on the environment.

    It's sad / unfortunate, but true at the same time.

  7. onslow | | #9

    I think large commercial roofs get done over partly over life cycle and warranty issues. You might get a roofer to do small patches or repairs, but I doubt they will warrant the service life of the entire roof after doing so. Given the typically high value of products or activity under a large commercial roof, there is strong motivation to not suffer interruption of services or production. Pre-emptive repairs ensures the continuity of income be it rent or commerce. Plus new materials come with warranties and lawyers love to point fingers when things go wrong.

    The cash value to a roofer of used insulation is probably zero to negative. It will cost the roofer to handle materials up or down the roof, so the motivation to strip a roof as fast as possible likely means little attention is being given to repurposing. If it happens fine, but I would question whether they would discount a job based on recoverable material. Don't forget they have no idea how much is wet or damaged. The problem of setting old insulation aside on the ground to be sold is not apt to be a good bargain for them. More man hours, more space tied up and more costs for disposal. It may be more likely that clever individuals offer to take the material off their hands and save them large landfill fees. This kind of under the radar market would be similar to ads on Craigslist offering fencing or patio bricks free to however takes them.

    All that aside, I am delighted to have procured my giant stack of recycled XPS for my build. The green value was a double win as noted, no land fill, prior GWP penalty on someone else, and I saved a bundle. I also haunt Habitat and Salvation Army stores, but I don't think the big cheeses at HD or Target are really altering their procurement plans based on the second chance stores.

    To James point about carbon costs, New Zealand is about to require banks to make carbon costs part of their loan parameters. Maybe the idea will spread.

  8. mrkawfey | | #10

    Bill's point about like for like is certainly true. No doubt that if you are intent on buying foam, recycled is the way to go. And in that case, demand is static.

    However I was thinking more about a choice that isn't like-for-like. Take this hypothetical:
    A startup develops a new insulation board made entirely from dandelion fluff and it's super environmentally friendly. It's about 15% more expensive than new polymer based foams so the large commercial jobs wont go for it except in special cases.

    As a DIY or renovation contractor I can buy recycled foam for even less than new. But do I, in good conscience, willingly pay more for the Dand-E-lion brand insulation? Of course in the short term, the embodied energy of the used product is always lower, but maybe that's not the best in the aggregate.

    This:
    >One of those hard to think about impacts where every decision is minor but in aggregate they matter.<

    vs:

    >A small project using 25 sheets of reclaimed insulation has effectively no real impact on the environment.<

    1. Expert Member
      BILL WICHERS | | #11

      DandiFluff insulation would then be something of a niche/premium product. There would still be a market for it, just like people pay extra for ThermalBuck window bucks because they are a premium product and have some advantages over the traditional wood-framed bucks. Mineral wool is another example -- it costs more than fiberglass, but it has some advantages so people do pay extra for it. GPS and EPS are another example.

      You might not have a HUGE market the way polyiso does, but there would be a market for a product that has some advantages over others, including "greeness" advantages.

      The real trick would be estimating how big the market would be. That I have no idea, but I'd guess that it would be big enough to sustain a company. There are a lot of speciality manufacturers of energy efficiency related products (Alpen, etc.), that charge more because of the uniqueness of their products.

      Bill

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