8 Unsustainable Building Materials Still Being Used

Published Categorized as Sustainability
Unsustainable Building Materials

Construction is one of the most resource-intensive industries in the world. Building new structures uses a lot of energy and also creates a lot of waste. Unfortunately, there are many unsustainable building materials that are still being used regularly today.

Here are 8 of the most unsustainable building materials still being used:

  1. Aluminum
  2. Reinforced Concrete
  3. Steel
  4. Glass
  5. Wood
  6. Clay
  7. Lead
  8. Asbestos

In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the most unsustainable building materials and why they’re still being used. We’ll also discuss some alternative, more sustainable materials that could be used instead.

1. Aluminum

Aluminum is one of the most popular materials used in construction. It’s lightweight and strong, making it ideal for use in a variety of applications. However, aluminum production is highly energy-intensive.

It takes a lot of energy to mine aluminum ore and process it into usable metal. In fact, aluminum production is responsible for around 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That works out to be 1.1 billion metric tons (1.1 trillion kg) of CO2 every year.

Reliance on aluminum is unlikely to falter any time soon. In fact, experts believe that humans will increase their aluminum usage over the next 30 years. The most significant contributors are China, the U.S., and the EU. All of these countries have committed to cutting down their carbon footprint.

Aluminum is commonly used in construction for framing, cladding, and trim. It’s a lightweight material that’s strong and easy to work with. It’s also a good conductor of heat and electricity, making it ideal for use in electrical wiring and heating systems.

Sustainable Alternative to Aluminum: Magnesium Alloy

Magnesium alloy is a suitable alternative to aluminum. It’s just as strong as aluminum, but it’s lighter and easier to work with. Magnesium alloy production has a lower carbon footprint, making it a more sustainable option.

However, magnesium alloy isn’t as common as aluminum, and it can be more expensive to purchase. In the long run, using magnesium alloy could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make construction more sustainable.

2. Reinforced Concrete

Concrete is the most commonly used material in construction. It’s strong, durable, and easy to work with. The downside is that it takes a considerable amount of energy to produce, which leaves behind a massive carbon footprint.

The production of cement, which is the main ingredient in concrete, accounts for around eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Each pound of cement is responsible for 0.9 pounds (0.41 kg) of CO2 being released.

Cement production emits a lot of carbon dioxide because of the high temperatures that are required to produce it. The manufacturing of cement also uses a lot of water, which can lead to water shortages in areas where it’s produced.

Making Concrete More Sustainable

There are a few ways to make concrete more sustainable. One is to use fly ash, which is a by-product of coal-fired power plants. Fly ash can be used as a replacement for cement in concrete.

Another way to reduce the carbon footprint of concrete is to use recycled materials instead of virgin materials. Recycled concrete can be used as aggregate in new concrete mixtures. This reduces the amount of energy that’s required to produce new concrete.

3. Steel

Steel is another popular material that is used extensively in construction. It’s strong and versatile, making it ideal for a variety of applications. Unfortunately, steel production like aluminum and concrete, has a very large carbon footprint that can’t be ignored.

The production of steel is responsible for around eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is because the process of making steel uses a lot of energy and also emits quite a bit of carbon dioxide. For every ton of steel, 1.85 metric tons (1,850 kg) of carbon dioxide is produced.

Making steel also uses a lot of water. In fact, it takes about two gallons of water to produce one pound of steel. This water is used to cool the steel as it’s being produced and to transport the finished product.

Steel remains a popular material used for construction of all kinds. This is because it’s substantial, tough and simple to use. However, the high carbon footprint of steel production means that it isn’t a sustainable option in the long run.

Increasing the Sustainability of Steel

There are a few ways to make steel more sustainable. Steel is 100% recyclable, which means it can be used again instead of smelting new material. Recycled steel uses 75% less energy than producing new steel.

Another way to make steel more sustainable is by using alternative methods of production that don’t use as much energy or emit as much carbon dioxide. One example is electric arc furnace steelmaking, which uses recycled scrap steel and doesn’t require the use of coal.

4. Glass

Glass is a commonly used product for things like doors and windows, which, of course, are frequently installed during construction. It’s also used in some types of insulation. Glass is made from sand, which is a renewable resource. However, the production of glass still has a significant impact on the environment.

The production of glass emits greenhouse gases and uses a lot of energy. In fact, it takes about 285 kg (628 lb) of CO₂ to produce 1000 kg (2,205 lb) of glass. The production of glass also uses a lot of water, which, as we’ve already covered, dramatically contributes to CO2 emissions.

Glass is used in basically every building, and there’s little chance it’ll be replaced anytime soon. We’re reliant on the glass to let light from the sun into buildings, which our bodies need daily.

Alternatives to Glass Use

There are a few ways to make glass more sustainable. One way is to use recycled glass instead of virgin materials. Recycled glass can be used as aggregate in new concrete mixtures or as insulation material.

Another approach to decrease the carbon footprint of glass is to utilize non-energy-intensive manufacturing processes that produce less carbon dioxide. One example is using solar power to heat the sand used to make glass.

Plexiglass is becoming a more common replacement for traditional glass in construction. It’s a type of plastic that’s made from acrylic. It’s often used as an alternative to glass because it’s shatterproof. However, the production of plexiglass also emits significant greenhouse gasses.

5. Clay

Clay is used in construction for a variety of purposes such as bricks, pipes, and roofing tiles. It is also used in ceramic products like toilets and sinks. Clay is a natural material that is found all over the world.

While clay might be a natural resource, that doesn’t mean its production doesn’t have an impact on the environment. In fact, the production of clay bricks emits greenhouse gases which gives this product a high carbon footprint in construction.

The process of making clay bricks involves mining the clay from the ground, shaping it into bricks, and then firing it in a kiln. This process uses a lot of energy as well as carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide.

Sustainable Clay Alternatives

Ferrock is a much more sustainable alternative to using clay in construction. Because it is made from recycled materials and doesn’t require the use of a kiln to fire, it doesn’t use nearly as much energy in production. Additionally, ferrock is waterproof and doesn’t need to be sealed with mortar.

Ferrock has been used for construction in Europe for many years. It is slowly gaining popularity in the United States as an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional clay bricks.

6. Wood

Wood is one of the oldest materials used in construction, and it’s still being used today. People like wood because it’s aesthetically pleasing, versatile in use, and is a renewable resource.

An added bonus in the fight against greenhouse gasses is that trees take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their wood, making wood a carbon-neutral material.

All of these facts make wood sound like it should be a sustainable material, but the problem is how we use it and have used it in the past. This has significantly contributed to greenhouse gas emissions.

The problem with wood is that it takes a long time to grow, which means that we’re cutting down trees faster than they can be replaced. The production of wood is what causes the spike in CO2.

Wood will likely remain a popular construction material forever, which means we need to work on ways to limit its effect on greenhouse gasses.

Making Wood More Sustainable

One way to make wood more sustainable is by using certified lumber from sustainably managed forests. This ensures that the trees that are being used have been grown in an environmentally friendly way and that new trees have been planted to replace them.

However, there are many lumber companies that don’t follow sustainable practices all around the world. Some of these companies destroy natural habitats and don’t replace the trees they cut down, which ruins our environment.

Some wood can be recycled, depending on its condition and what it was used for. Recycled wood can be used for things like flooring, paneling, and furniture. It’s also a good insulator and can help reduce the carbon footprint of a building.

7. Lead

Lead is a heavy metal that’s often used in construction because it’s durable and has a low melting point. Lead is often used in pipes and plumbing fixtures, as well as in some types of paint and insulation. The main issue with lead is that it’s a toxic substance that can be harmful to humans if ingested or inhaled.

The health hazards of lead have been known since as early as 2000 BC, yet it remains a common material used in construction. This is because lead is still considered to be one of the most effective materials for its intended purpose. Despite the health risks, lead is still considered to be one of the most effective materials for its intended purpose. Lead continues to be used in construction because it is inexpensive and easy to work with.

Additionally, lead can lead to air pollution because its dust will remain in an environment indefinitely- making its way into the air, water, and soil. Lead is toxic to plants if too much dust gets into the plant’s soil or water, which can hinder plant growth and lead to death.

If lead particles cause plants to wilt and die in an area, it decreases how much carbon dioxide is removed from the air. Plants take in carbon dioxide during a process known as photosynthesis. Lead in its soil can affect this and stop the plant from getting enough energy.

8. Asbestos

Asbestos is a mineral fiber that was once commonly used in insulation and fireproofing materials. Asbestos fibers are strong and durable, which makes them ideal for these applications. However, asbestos fibers can also be inhaled, which can cause serious health problems, including lung cancer.

The use of asbestos has been banned in many countries, but it’s still used in some developing nations. Asbestos-containing materials are still being imported into developed countries as well. In fact, there’s still no ban on asbestos in the United States.

The health risks of asbestos are well known, yet it’s still being used in construction. Most countries have taken to banning the material because it can cause a slow death in those exposed to it. However, it still exists in many buildings throughout the world.

Asbestos fibers can remain in the air for a long time and be inhaled by people nearby. Asbestos fibers can also settle on clothing and be taken home, where they can be breathed in by family members. Once asbestos fibers are inhaled, they can cause lung cancer or other diseases.

Even if asbestos-containing materials aren’t being used in new construction projects, they can still pose a danger to workers and the general public. A disturbance could happen if they’re disturbed during demolition or renovation work.

It’s important to have a professional assess the risks before starting any work that could release asbestos fibers into the air.


By Giovanni Valle

Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.

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