Choosing wall board

If you’ve ever built a home, you probably don’t remember having to select the wall board (dry wall) that lines your walls. Most of us take whatever the builder puts up and we’re perfectly content. Well, we have been working on wall board selection at the Green Garage and it is anything but simple. If you do a little research, you learn that 15% of all material going to a landfill is drywall. It is nearly impossible to recycle. In addition, it represents a very high embodied energy in its production. In fact, the same amount of energy that it takes to put up 1,000 sq ft of drywall is equivalent to the amount of energy it takes to heat and cool the typical US home for a year. The good news about drywall is that it is cheap – about $7 for a 4′ x 8′ sheet. So we have a cheap product that requires a lot of energy to produce that is not easily recyclable. Bad news.

We researched alternatives. There is a green product called Kirei Board that is manufactured from reclaimed sorghum straw and low-or no-added-formaldehyde adhesives. That works for us. Unfortunately, a 4′ x 8′ sheet costs $400. This doesn’t exactly fit into our ‘economic justice’ model of operating. We then looked at homasote, which is made from recycled pressed paper. A 4′ x 8′ sheet is a more reasonable $23. The water used to manufacture homasote is recycled, and the product itself is recyclable. It is also good for deadening sound.

So this is the dilemma of materials. No answer is perfect. The product that is cheapest and most accessible to people is also the least sustainable. Making a decision required us to look not only at cost, but how the product was manufactured, if it was recyclable, and how easy it was to get. In the end, we had to think outside the box to come up with a solution. We decided to:

  • Take some of the wood we have taken down from the building and line the bottom third of the walls with that.
  • Use drywall for the upper 2/3’s of the walls – After much additional research, Tom was able to locate a dry wall distributor that sold recycled drywall product. It still required quite a bit of energy to produce, but at least it came from recycled drywall.
  • Use homasote in our areas that required soundproofing, like the back rooms.

One more problem with drywall is that it is difficult to remove, as it is usually glued to surfaces. So we are screwing ours in, in the hopes that if it needs to be taken down, it can be removed in large segments for use later.

A few days ago Tom and I spoke at a Chemical Engineering Symopsium at MSU put on by the students. A number of Materials Engineering students were there as well. I can encourage them, I hope, by telling them that one of the toughest areas in sustainability is materials – in other words, they are desperately needed. It’s fun to come up with sustainable products that are beautiful and eco-friendly, but at what cost? The real work needs to be done in the arena of inexpensive, recyclable materials that are available to the masses.

At the end of our talk, Tom told the students (about 150) that we would personally buy them each a copy of ‘Cradle to Cradle’ by William McDonough if they would just write to us. McDonough’s thesis is that we should be making products that can return naturally to the earth and nourish it. A number of have written requesting books, including some materials engineers. We’re on our way…

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