Green Materials in the Spotlight

Smart Cities Advisors has been researching the hot space of green building materials of late. According to NextGen Research, green building materials were globally a $455.3 billion market in 2009 and were predicted to become $571 billion market by 2013.  In developed markets, diverting reusable materials from the waste stream and recycling them into construction materials has picked up steam in the past decade. Companies in this space range from non-profits with salvaged materials to lumber companies relying on reclaimed wood from barns to architectural and antique artifacts to industrial producers of sustainably produced surfaces, fly-ash bricks, insulated panels and much more. The practice of deconstructing buildings rather than demolishing is becoming far more common in this age of increased reuse and preservation of resources.

These innovations have been slow to arrive in developing markets. Many observers say that, first, the vast majority of land and property development in most of these countries is brand new development on greenfield sites. Second, one would note that individuals and construction workers are already meticulously careful about deconstructing older buildings in building the new, especially at the base of the pyramid, where everything that can be conserved is used in a new structure or an add-on. Both comments are absolutely true. Third, of course, developing countries have lower levels of consumption, hence, lower levels of waste per capita, as well as less plastic, metal, paper and construction waste, among other solid wastes.

Keeping in mind the focus on cities and construction, there are some clear counterpoints that suggest the potential to explore waste streams in developing countries as sources of green construction materials:

  • Rapid and haphazard urbanization in developing countries is dramatically exceeding municipalities’ capacity to deliver waste management solutions, especially among low income neighborhoods and informal settlements. This leaves low income city zones, waterfront areas, natural and manmade drainage channels and other neglected areas, like undeveloped land, particularly vulnerable to waste dumping. Also, economic growth brings rising standards of living and desire for the trappings of affluence, which means that e-waste and more complex waste products are entering the waste stream at a higher rate than in the past.
  • Construction management practices in developing countries are still evolving from a very low level of efficiency and consideration for sustainability. Materials may be over-ordered or used and disposed of inefficiently. Construction sites are not often being managed to minimize impact on surrounding areas. Finally, construction sites may be unprotected from the elements for long periods of time, certain materials may be ruined and unusable through exposure.
  • The cost and availability of imported construction materials may stimulate interest in domestic recycled materials. Construction materials are increasingly imported into developing economies to meet the needs of high growth populations and, particularly, cities. No developing country or emerging market is self-sufficient in the production of most building materials. China is one of the largest construction materials exporters in the world despite also being one of the major importers of construction materials. This underlines the potential to substitute imports for recycled domestic products. In addition, the ability to save on energy and water costs in fabrication presents additional cost benefits. Finally, the low cost of unskilled labor in many developing economies, especially in the densely populated cities with high poverty rates, suggests that certain waste segregation activities might be more economically feasible. (UNU-WIDER’s news magazine article Global Recycling Supply Chains and Waste Picking in Developing Countries provides further background).
  • Inefficient, fragmented or “dirty” industrial processes often produce wastes that are currently being underexploited for this purpose. One practice that has grown rapidly in recent years is the use of fly ash from coal-fired plants to produce sustainable concrete, bricks, tiles and paving material. On the other hand, the use of cotton waste, as in from blue jeans, has started to be used for insulation, but this use has yet to be adopted in developing economies, even though the cotton textile industry is a major segment of the economy in many large developing/emerging markets.*

Sharing a few ventures and efforts that we have found interesting in our travels and research:

Vecor got coverage in this recent Wall Street Journal article Vecor Recycles Waste From Coal Plants Into Building Materials discussing this Australian company’s success with fly ash building materials in China and India.

Serious Materials manufactures green drywall, for which they’ve won heaps of accolades. They had to fabricate in China (unclear whether because of costs or availability of skilled labor with experience in construction materials manufacturing or both?). This TED talk by CEO Kevin Surace is an inspiring discussion of green materials.

Two Brazilian companies, Ecopak and Ecopedra, are interesting for producing tiles made of recycled waste. PET packaging, for instance, is a major input for Ecopedra.

Also, see our interview with architect, designer, planner and author Yatin Pandya in Ahmedabad for a look at a DIY approach to discovering the potential behind India’s solid waste stream.

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