It’s Time To Rethink Recycling

Wes Sullens and Jim Vallette - October 10, 2014

Recycling is a deeply embedded principle of green building.  From the beginning of LEED®, recycling has stood by itself as an important attribute of material and waste management credits. These credits, in turn, fueled a huge increase in recycled content in many building materials, from wallboard to concrete to carpet to construction fill.

The status quo is about to change.  The green building movement is in the midst of a quantum leap in understanding, during which the collection of information through transparency tools is paramount. Product ingredient data -- collected by systems like the Health Product Declaration, the Pharos Project, Declare and Environmental Product Declarations -- informs the new multi-attribute assessment structure into which LEED® Version 4 and green building in general are moving. The single attribute of recycled content is not necessarily enough anymore.

In other words, the more we learn, the more we know that not all recycled content is the same.  Until very recently, most building products often came labeled only with unspecified “recycled content.”  Then, the transparency movement struck. At the Healthy Building Network (HBN), beginning in 2009, researchers took at a closer look at recycling for its Pharos Project, the original transparency tool.  Pharos relies upon a combination of dogged research (like deciphering company patents and obscure industrial recipes) and dialogue with manufacturers to identify all potential hazards in a building material.  Vaguely described recycled content does not suffice.

Carpets, for example, were often labeled as “containing 20 percent” (or more) recycled content.  Before Pharos, before disclosure became a green building buzzword, no one outside the industry knew the fillers’ identities.  We now know so much more.  The recycled content may be discarded glass, or, more likely, it is fly ash from a nearby coal power plant, or asphalt pavement torn from Georgia roads.  Each feedstock has a far different range of potential impacts. This truth should be self-evident: not all recycled content is created equal.

Thanks to transparency, and the multi-attribute approach into which LEED and environmental decisions are moving, it is time to rethink recycling. It is time to take an honest accounting of the differences between feedstocks that make up our recycled products.

Industry-wide, there’s an investigation underway, with consumers going to product manufacturers, and product manufacturers going to the raw material suppliers, trying to identify what exactly is in each step of the process.  Information begets innovation. Transparency leads to the minimization of health impacts and maximization of environmental benefits.

In this quest for material optimization, StopWaste and the Healthy Building Network, in partnership with the City of San Francisco Department of the Environment, are collaborating on a project to quantify the benefits and impacts of various recycled material feedstocks.  We are looking at materials like recycled glass, cellulose, and asphalt, and seeing how they compare to each other and to the materials they replace.

We are developing innovative criteria to evaluate these impacts on multiple fronts: human health, green jobs, and the environment.  The goal is to optimize recycled feedstocks.

Through dialogue with industry, determined research, and clear criteria, we will better understand what’s in our feedstocks, and provide clearer direction on which feedstocks are appropriate in which building products.

Recycling remains an important attribute. Its relevance only increases as resources dwindle and the atmosphere warms. Our challenge is to figure out how to maximize its benefit for people and the planet, and to foster a healthier, more sustainable economy.

For a sneak peek into our research and findings, visit the HBN booth this month at Greenbuild in New Orleans.


Wes Sullens is a Green Building Program Manager for the Northern California local government agency StopWaste. Wes works on regional energy and green building codes & standards advocacy; recycling and materials management programs & standards; and green building legislation. He is currently Chair of the LEED Materials & Resources Technical Advisory Group for the USGBC, and is a member of several committees for green codes and standards including ASHRAE 189.1, Cradle 2 Cradle v4, ULe Standard 2799 for Zero Waste, and the GreenPoint Rated program in California.

Jim Vallette is Senior Researcher for the Healthy Building Network.

Meet Wes and Jim at HBN’s booth at Greenbuild [Booth #1638, near the middle of the exhibition floor] for informal discussions about recycling in the era of LEED v4.  Discussions will take place 11:30am-1pm on Wednesday, Oct. 22 and 4pm-5pm on Thursday, Oct. 23.

The second phase of this project will begin in January 2015.  If your organization is interested in participating, please contact us.


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