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Eco-friendly benefits of composites: Safe building alternatives

April 11, 2016

For thousands of years, people have been using composites to build structures. The latest generation of composites are stronger, lighter and can be made from environmentally friendly materials.

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A 66-apartment, energy efficient student residence building in Denmark is made entirely from composites. (via Fiberline)

It is a common misconception that composites are not as environmentally friendly as recyclable metals or other traditional building materials. While this may have been accurate twenty years ago, today it truly depends on the manufacturing method and how the composites are supplied.

With more companies becoming environmentally conscious, they are looking for safer ways to manufacture their materials. This has caused an increase in efforts to produce composites that are stronger, lighter, and created from biodegradable material and natural fibers. As a result, many are only now discovering the Eco-friendly benefits of using composites in place of other building materials.

What Are Composites

Composites are a combination of two or more materials that bind together to form a reinforcement. They are created either naturally or synthetically. Eco-friendly composites are generally made up of organic material or biodegradable polymers. When combined with natural binding fibers, such as hemp or flax, the two materials form a composite.

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Pueblo Indians built their homes from jacal, an early example of a composite building material.

When natural materials are used to form composites, they become a safe building material that reduces waste, pollution, and the use of non-renewable resources.

Biodegradable Polymers

Composites that are created using biodegradable polymers are one Eco-friendly option. Biodegradable polymers are simply a specific type of polymer that has the ability to break down easily. As they do so, the polymers turn into biomass, natural gases, and water. Biodegradable polymers are stable and durable for their specific purpose. However, once disposed of, the ability to break down quickly and safely reduces landfill waste and environmental toxins.

Plastic is one example of a biodegradable polymer that has become common place in the building industry. When most people think of environmentally friendly material, plastic is usually the last thing to come to mind.

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50% of the plastics we use, we use once and throw away and it can take up to 500 years for a piece of plastic to degrade.

Conventional types of plastic have long been labeled as an environmental issue. For the most part, this is because many types of plastic are not biodegradable or environmentally friendly. Once discarded the plastic would end up in a landfill, where it could take up to 500 years to break down. During this process the plastic emits high levels of carbon dioxide and other toxic chemicals.

However, advances over the last two decades have changed all that. Plastic created from biodegradable polymers, such corn starch and vegetable fats, has an overall lower environmental impact than conventional plastics. It also produces less harmful gasses and emissions during production and after disposal. The best part is biodegradable plastic, unlike metal derived from the earths core, is a renewable resource.

Other Benefits of Using Eco-Friendly Composites

The use of composites as building materials is not a new idea. Thousands of years ago, natural composites were the main source of building materials, as it was the only option available. Over the last twenty years, with advancement in technology and research, natural composites have re-emerged as a safe, and sometimes better alternative to traditional building materials.

See Also: Coat House - the low-energy house of the future

Composites are very versatile and adaptable to meet the specific needs of any project. When compared to other building materials such as wood or metal, they are often the preferred choice. One reason is that they are 30-40% lighter making them easier to work with. Composites can also be four to six times stronger. The endurance and resistance to corrosion, fire, and chemicals also makes composites appealing to many, as it means less time and money spent on maintenance.

While the use of composites as building materials hasn't always been a sustainable option, newer eco-friendly versions have proven an excellent alternative to recyclable metals and wood. Biodegradable composites can help reduce waste and pollution without depleting the earth of natural, non-renewable resources.

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