From Climate Change to Health: Material Selection Has Never Been More Important

Bill Walsh | November 2018 | Newsletter

With apologies to T.S. Elliot, October was the “cruellest month.” On October 7, 2018, the global scientific consensus on climate change was revised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to conclude that catastrophic climate disaster is irrefutably underway and requires a level of “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

Five days later, the world pumped more oil and petroleum liquids than ever before. And the International Energy Agency forecast that “the largest driver of world oil demand” will soon be petrochemicals, led by plastic materials. Building materials are the second-largest use of plastics after packaging.1 

“Firm commitments and immediate action” are needed.

The global movement to reduce and transform the use of plastics in packaging, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, signals what is needed in the green building industry.

The foundation’s New Plastics Economy project has issued an open letter, signed by consumer product giants Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever, calling for “firm commitments and immediate action” by businesses and governments to tackle plastic waste and pollution at their source. The recommended action steps should be adopted and adapted by the building industry.

  • Eliminate the plastic we don’t need. In addition to eliminating wasteful product uses, such as single-use straws and excessive packaging, in 2017 the New Plastics Economy project recommended phasing out certain packaging materials, including PVC and extruded polystyrene.2 The incompatibility of these and certain other plastics with a closed-loop economy requires similar phase-outs in the building industry as a predicate to the next essential steps.
  • Innovate so all the plastic we use is designed to be safely reused, recycled, or composted. There are promising alternative materials and scalable recycling strategies for some petrochemical-based plastics. It’s time for manufacturers to make serious public commitments to drastically reducing the use of virgin plastic feedstocks, and for architects, designers, and building owners to favor materials that are part of closed-loop systems.
  • Circulate everything we use, making sure the plastic we produce stays in the economy and never becomes waste or pollution. This can be accomplished in the building industry only with time-bound public commitments by manufacturers to take back their products until meaningful government mandates can be established.

Transformation is possible.

It is impossible to exaggerate either the urgency or the difficulty of the challenges delivered to us in October. It is difficult but completely possible to make “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes” in the materials we use and products we specify.

HBN’s Optimizing Recycling reports3 show that there are scalable strategies to dramatically increase recycling of plastics and other materials. Our in-depth analysis of insulation and sealants identifies scalable energy efficiency options that reduce the use of hazardous and greenhouse chemicals. Our recommendations on chlorine-based plastics are backed up by independent analyses of the “chemical footprint” of plastics, which, like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy project, point toward clear solutions for reducing the types of plastics we use in favor of those that are less toxic to the environment and human health.

There are solutions within our grasp. What has been lacking so far are the “firm commitments and immediate action.”

As October turns to November, the green building industry will soon gather at the annual Greenbuild conference. We can expect many speakers to echo the call of the IPCC report for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” We can expect many businesses to roll out their latest green marketing campaigns and product innovations. Will there be “firm commitments” equal to the challenge before us? Will “immediate action” be taken? Will an appropriate existential balance be struck between “the profit and loss”?

From T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,

Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell

And the profit and loss. . . .

Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.


[1] A new webinar by the Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE) features HBN researchers and other independent experts discussing the climate and health challenges of plastics mentioned in this article. Plastic Production’s Threats to Health: Global Trends, Chemical Footprints of Common Plastics, and the PVC Industry’s Wake of Pollution. Recorded webinar can be found here:

[2] See p. 27.

[3] Healthy Building Network, in collaboration with StopWaste and the San Francisco Department of the Environment, evaluated 11 common post-consumer recycled-content feedstocks used in the manufacturing of building products, making recommendations to increase recycling rates while reducing chemical hazards in each. Specific reports address carpet, polyethelyne, and PVC, among others.