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Three bad-mouthed building materials you won't believe are really eco-friendly

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Posted: Monday, April 21, 2014 5:00 pm | Updated: 1:35 am, Tue Apr 29, 2014.

(BPT) - More homeowners are keeping Mother Nature in mind when undertaking a renovation, addition or new construction. They’re seeking building practices and materials that are energy-efficient and environmentally friendly. If you’re among these groups, you may choose to avoid construction materials you’ve come to think of as “not green.”

The truth, however, is that some maligned materials are actually more environmentally safe than alternatives that may seem more natural. Here are three popular materials that are greener than you may think:

Plastic pipe

You would probably have a hard time thinking of a material more universally reviled as bad for the environment than plastic. While it’s true that plastic doesn’t break down in landfills, certain types of plastics, when used correctly and in the right applications, are eco-friendly thanks to their sheer durability. They’ll last longer, which requires less consumption of other materials and resources to manufacture replacements, and they’ll reduce the waste stream.

PEX (cross-linked polyethylene) pipe is a good example. Used in hot- and cold-water plumbing, residential fire sprinkler systems and radiant floor-heating systems, PEX is actually a better option than copper, another material commonly used for the same applications.

“The processes used for mining and refining copper, and turning it into pipe, consume a great deal of natural resources,” says Dale Stroud, senior director of offerings/marketing for Uponor North America, which uses PEX in its plumbing, heating and residential fire sprinkler systems. “Like all metal, it will eventually corrode and wear out. Replacing it can be costly and labor-intensive, and discarded piping is not always recyclable.”

PEX, however, is created through less energy-intensive means, and its durability ensures that it will virtually never wear out. Its use in new construction or renovation pretty much ensures the homeowner will never have to replace the product, meaning fewer resources consumed for repair, removal, reinstallation and disposal of discarded piping.

PEX piping delivers clean, healthy water for household uses, including drinking, cooking and bathing, and can even help conserve water and energy compared to leaky, less-efficient metal pipes. When used in radiant floor heating and cooling systems, PEX is energy-efficient, and improves the overall temperature comfort of a home or a commercial building.

“While PEX is made from crude oil and natural gas, if you consider alternative uses of those resources, you might conclude that a durable use (such as pipe) is better for the environment than single-use applications like gasoline or diesel fuel for vehicle engines that contribute to greenhouse gases,” Stroud says. To learn more about PEX, visit www.uponor-usa.com.

Vinyl siding

Vinyl siding is another product that many homeowners mistakenly think of as less eco-friendly than other types of siding. But this highly energy-efficient siding is also green in other ways, too.

“Throughout the processes of manufacturing, transportation, installation, service life and waste management, vinyl siding scores well on tough environmental measures,” the Vinyl Siding Institute says on its website. “Hands down (it scores) better than brick or fiber cement.”

The vinyl siding manufacturing process produces little to no waste, and because the siding is relatively lightweight, it’s more fuel-efficient to transport than other types of siding, the VSI reports. Installation generates little scrap, meaning less waste to dispose of, and the product’s longevity means homeowners are much less likely to need to replace it – and that means less construction waste in landfills.

In fact, according to VSI analysis of data from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, vinyl siding has the second-lowest environmental impact of any siding product (exceeded only by cedar shingles). Vinyl manufacturing requires little water and fossil fuels, creates minimal smog, has little impact on ozone depletion and affects animal habitats minimally, the data indicate.

Rubber roof shingles

While the process of creating rubber still has significant environmental impact, Americans have become much more adept at recycling rubber – especially tires – meaning less rubber waste in landfills. Rubber roof shingles are a cost-effective, durable, good-looking alternative to other single styles – and they’re more eco-friendly than you might imagine.

Made primarily from recycled tires, rubber roof shingles can mimic the appearance of slate tiles, but far surpass the popular stone in terms of durability. They’re impact- and moisture-resistant – two of the main causes of damage to traditional roofing materials.

Although they’re not the cheapest roofing material available, rubber roof tiles can be considered “green” on multiple levels. Not only are they made from recycled materials using a process that has minimal environmental impact, their incredible longevity means homeowners may live in their houses for decades without ever needing to replace their roofs. At least one manufacturer guarantees its rubber roof shingles for 50 years.

Choosing green building materials is a good thing. Fortunately some of the most durable and cost-effective materials are also among the greenest.

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