A Homeowner’s Guide to Biodegradable Home Improvement Options
Before you rush to the big box store for building materials, consider using biodegradable options for your walls, floors and outdoor surfaces. What does biodegradable mean? If something is biodegradable, given the right conditions and presence of microorganisms, fungi, or bacteria, it will eventually break down and blend back in with the earth. [The bad news is that while light, water and bacteria encourage biodegradability, most landfills are compacted so tightly, and thus do not let much air in. As such, any biodegradation that does take place does so very slowly, though much sooner than products that are not biodegradable.] To ensure the materials you buy are truly biodegradable, ask the manufacturer if chemicals were part of the manufacturing process or check packaging; knowledgeable clerks may also be a godsend in this area.
COVID Construction is a Thing/Pandemic Home Pursuits
Speaking of action, many homeowners are tackling home improvement projects during COVID-19. In a nationwide survey, respondents reported spending an average of $17,140 on roughly five projects between March and July 2020. The uptick in upgrades and Home Depot and Lowe’s essential status has improved their bottom line and perhaps our basements, but are there home upgrades that benefit our planet? Out with the old and into the landfill? Not so fast. Resource Central partners with Boulder County homeowners and/or contractors to do walkthroughs to determine what household materials are salvageable and ultimately saved from languishing in a landfill. Reusable materials include lumber, doors, windows, cabinetry, and hardwood flooring – all of which qualify as tax-delectable donations.
Outdoor Biodegradable Options
In Colorado’s arid climate, watering your yard with freshwater is wasteful and unnecessary. If you want a material that is visually pleasing and doesn’t require as much precious water to maintain, look for Grasscrete. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Picture it: in the year nineteen hundred and seventy, a groovy architect in the U.K. coined what happened when concrete pavers and grass had a funky love child. Grasscrete is the result of embedded pavers that allow grass to grow through. Oh yeah, that’s the stuff.
Grasscrete goes by other monikers: grass block pavers, turf block pavers, or grow-through pavers. They can be used any where you would have used asphalt, concrete, or traditional pavers. Grasscrete provides a porous, eco-friendly option for driveways and parking areas. Grass block pavers prevent stormwater runoff, one of the biggest sources of water pollution. Stormwater runoff is caused when rain washes over asphalt or concrete, picks up oil and other road pollutants, and deposits a toxic soup into rivers, bays, and streams, or in our case in landlocked Colorado, our sewers. Grasscrete absorbs water, lessening the amount of water that races over pavement in a rainstorm, preventing erosion. Thanks, groovy U.K. guy.
Grasscrete still allows rain to seep into the ground but the water that eventually ends up there has been filtered by grass and soil so the returned water is clean. Purists would argue the grass part of Grasscrete still requires watering. One way to lessen the amount of fresh water you use at home is by installing rain barrels. A 2016 bill from the Colorado legislature did away with our status as the only U.S. state that outlawed collection. Homeowners can now collect two rain barrels with a combined capacity of 110 gallons per household. While homeowners may never need to remove the grass pavers, they may need to repair any cracks resulting from heavy use and settlement.
Finally, Grasscrete is most suited for long haul homeowners since it won’t last as long as an asphalt driveway.
Biodegradable Bamboo Flooring
Bamboo is so tough it was the only plant to survive Hiroshima. If that doesn’t bode well for its resiliency, perhaps bamboo flooring’s other advantages will sway you. Bamboo is a highly sustainable plant, growing to full size in just 3-4 months, compared to standard trees which can take 30+ years. Pesticides and chemicals are not used during harvest, negating the need for their disposal. If bamboo flooring is only treated with natural finishes it is biodegradable.
Advantages of bamboo flooring: Bamboo flooring is strong, sustainable, biodegradable and affordable. The cost of bamboo flooring is just $5 to $10 per square foot, comparable to most common hardwood flooring. Homeowners can install it themselves or contract with a local flooring company. Bamboo doesn’t cost as much to ship and uses less fuel during transport since it weighs less than other flooring options. Boom. Already saving the planet.
Cons of bamboo flooring: Some bamboo flooring manufacturers started with good intentions but ended up cutting corners. Look for bamboo flooring products certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) for their harvesting and manufacturing practices. Lastly, you get what you pay for because less expensive bamboo shows more knicks. If you want to save money, use lower quality bamboo flooring in areas with children, pets, or less traffic.
Cork is derived from the bark of the cork oak tree and is periodically harvested from the living trees in commercial plantations. Cork is a completely natural, recurring, and easily replenishable material.
The advantages of cork flooring are myriad. Cork flooring comes in tiles, making it easier to install than wood flooring. There is a cork floor for all budgets with planks or tiles that cost between $2 to $12 per square foot, depending on the thickness of the material, the quality of the cork, and the quality of the finish. Professional installation is fairly economical, adding $1 to $2 per square foot. Nationally, the average cost for covering a 100-square foot room with cork flooring is about $950—or $9.50 per square foot. This is comparable to what a bamboo floor costs, and costs slightly less than most hardwood flooring. Cork flooring is soft, hypoallergenic, and muffles vibrations better than hardwood, tile or concrete. If your surface is uneven, cork is your best defense as it flexes enough to accommodate less than perfect subfloors.
The drawbacks of cork flooring are few. Cork flooring is most often used as a base layer or subfloor under other types of flooring. It is an ecologically preferable choice to synthetic sub-flooring options but you are likely covering it up with a top floor. Exposed cork must be resealed every five years to remain waterproof. Boo for regular upkeep but yay for saving the earth.
Biodegradable Insulation Options
Insulation normally lasts a lifetime but you may need to replace it when your home settles, mold or mildew sullies it, current insulation is not thick enough, or it has decayed over time. If one of these situations occurs, or you are installing insulation in an attic or addition, sheep’s wool is the biodegradable choice.
Sheep’s Wool Insulation
Used for centuries, sheep’s wool insulation is catching on in a big way. Besides their homes, drivers are insulating their vans with sheep’s wool. It’s a natural product and manufacturers like Havelock Wool tout its biodegradability. “We only use a small amount of boric acid to deter insects,” says Havelock Wool’s Phil Walsh, who adds, “the wool can be composted after a long useful life.”
There are more advantages to using this natural product. Sheep’s wool insulation improves indoor air quality, is energy efficient, manages moisture, absorbs sound better than fiberglass, and takes little energy to produce. Well I mean, sheep energy, but not other energy.The drawbacks of sheep’s wool are rising costs due to higher demand – ugh, it’s so popular a friend of ours redoing her van said there is a six week backorder currently – and the transportation involved with shipping the wool from New Zealand to the United States. The energy expended, however, does not come close to what is needed for fiberglass, the most common insulation. The only material with less energy involved to ship to consumers is cellulose, but because chemicals are added for fireproofing, it is not biodegradable or compostable. That’s baaa’d, say the sheep.
Zero Waste Home Improvement Options
Zero wasters consider the entire life cycle of every item brought into our home. The energy used to produce, deliver and the shelf life of an item all come into consideration. By decreasing the amount of manufactured material we buy, wasteful packaging and single use goods will drop, say proponents. Paper and packaging account for a large percentage of what we toss into our home’s recycling bins. Beginning with the mailbox, you can download an app called Paper Karma to eliminate junk mail altogether. You take pictures on your smartphone and the app sends a message on your behalf to remove you from their distribution list.
Zero waste solutions for cleaning are also plentiful. Eliminate single use paper towels with fabric paper towels, opt for cloth napkins and resolve to do a little extra washing rather than using paper plates or plastic silverware. When shopping, bring mesh produce bags and shopping bags. Additional zero waste ideas for the kitchen include:
- Reusable coffee filters
- Silicone plastic bags
- Green-light brand matches
- Bee’s wrap
- Metal straws
- Glass containers for leftovers
- Compostable garbage bags.
In the home office, print on both sides or reuse your one-sided printouts and use a whiteboard or electronic app where you would have used a paper planner.
Zero Waste and Packaging
Buying used means you won’t have to break down and recycle boxes. Before a new purchase, consult a decision tree to see other waste free options. So much of zero waste is not how to treat an itch but how to avoid rolling around in the poison ivy in the first place. Verity Noble with Boulder’s zero waste Nude Foods Market has a mission to make being zero waste even easier than going to the store and buying packaged products. “Instead of getting in your car and spending, let’s be honest, an hour dragging yourself around the store, you simply go online, choose what you’d like, and it’s brought right to your door by bike.”
“A common complaint about zero waste is that it will take more time. But our customers are telling us they have so much more time with their families. Bypassing the store also prevents those impulse purchases that tend to be on the less healthy side.”
Nude Foods’ online market, according to Noble, “is an easy gateway to going zero waste and it kicks off a virtuous cycle of eliminating waste in other parts of their lives.”
Fruits and vegetables can be composted but if you’re not a fan of the smell, effort or the vermin that are attracted to it – you have options to eliminate the waste. Provide past their prime fruits and vegetables to neighbors with horses, chickens or goats. If it’s still fit for humans, bring extra fruit and vegetables to your neighbors. Instead of a porch pirate, be a porch angel. Apps like NextDoor are helping neighbors in need connect with surplus food during COVID-19. Home gardeners can even connect with food banks who accept produce.
If your extra food is not fresh fruit and vegetables, take it to a Boulder area food pantry or join a Boulder area Facebook group with hour by hour postings of food and other necessities.
Final Recyclable Thought
Biodegradable building is not an oxymoron. We can continue to build and improve our homes and have access to materials that are better for our health, comparable in cost, and easier to produce. The purpose of the “zero waste” movement is to become more conscious and rethink if we can use what we already have. Call it low waste, minimalism, or simple living, you can have a positive impact without piety.
“Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.”