Green vs. Sustainable vs. Renewable Materials: We Compare

A collage of different building materials ranging from aggregates, cement, wood, concrete blocks, and insulation. The words "Green vs. Sustainable vs. Renewable Materials: We Compare" are overlain at the top.

Eco-friendliness is crucial when it comes to choosing building materials.

Not only do these materials conserve the environment, but they can also save you money in energy bills.

When looking to build an eco-friendly home, you’ll come across the terms green, sustainable, and renewable materials.

Most of us use the terms green, sustainable, and renewable building materials interchangeably without understanding their differences.

The challenge comes when you’re in the market for your construction project’s materials. When the time comes, you’ll be left at a crossroads wondering whether to go for green, sustainable, or renewable materials.

I’ll compare green, sustainable, and renewable materials in this article.

To help you make an informed decision, I’ll also talk about their benefits and limitations.

Keep reading to learn the best building material for an environmentally conscious global citizen to use.

Green Building Materials

A picture of a builder wearing a tool belt and holding a yellow hard hat. To the right is a cartoon image of a green house and an eco friendly kite mark.
Green building materials are critical to improving the green credentials of the building sector.

Materials considered green have a minimal environmental impact throughout their lifecycle and are eco-friendly in a way that avoids damage to natural habitats.

Understanding a material’s lifecycle is crucial if you want to determine how green it is. According to Science Direct, lifecycle analysis of a building material looks along its entire supply chain to assess its impact on the planet from the cradle to the grave.

The supply chain incorporates extraction, production, use on the construction site, maintenance, and disposal.

Usually, green building materials are made from natural and synthetic sources and are preferred for the following reasons:

  • They are often more energy efficient

  • They have low toxicity levels

  • They help to keep the carbon emissions of a project low

A crucial point to note is that, in general, all green materials are renewable. However, not every renewable material is considered green. For instance, while wood is a renewable material, it’s not considered green unless sourced from sustainable forests.

Benefits of Green Building Commodities

Green building products come with the following benefits:

  • Energy conservation: Green products used in construction save as much as 40 to 50% of energy. Thus, they are your go-to option if you want an energy-efficient house to save on utility bills.

  • Improved occupational health and productivity: Since green building materials are low in toxicity levels, they pose no risks to the occupants. Therefore, you can enjoy better health and work productivity than when using conventional materials used in the construction industry.

  • Reduced carbon footprint: Greener building entails a cradle-to-grave analysis of all products used in construction. As such, the end product is beneficial not only to you but also to the environment. It uses less energy and makes for a more efficient use of resources.

  • Excellent design flexibility: It’s easy to design most new buildings with green, eco-friendly building materials. For instance, you can find an eco-friendly alternative for use in everything from walls, flooring, and roofing systems to insulation and window frames.

Limitations of Green Materials

Although green concepts are gaining traction across the building sector, as with anything else, green products are not without their drawbacks. They include:

●     They are expensive: The initial cost of green products is often high compared to conventional building materials. For instance, bamboo and cork flooring is more costly than regular chipboard floors. However, the cost of going green is often balanced against its durability and quality.

●     They are hard to find: This depends on the type of material you’re looking for. While some materials take time to grow, others have limited production quantities. As such, you might have to search hard for that green material you need.

●     Finding artisans and service providers can be challenging: There are few qualified and experienced green material artisans and service providers. When trying to find contractors or service providers for your sustainable construction project, this might prove challenging.

●     It takes time for the benefits to show: While you may enjoy lower energy bills by using green goods, it will take some time before the benefits show. This is because the initial costs of green technologies are often high, at least for early adopters.

Sustainable Building Materials

A hand holding a green model of the earth on some lush green grass. to the right of the image is a stylized cartoon of a number of high rise buildings.
We must protect the earth’s environment from damage. The construction sector can help to do this by using more sustainable building materials.

Sustainable building materials can be easily and cheaply produced, used, recycled, and reused without depleting the earth’s resources or disrupting the steady state of environmental equilibrium.

Here is an ideal example to help you understand sustainable building materials:

Traditional concrete is made from sand, cement, and aggregates. All these are produced from natural materials.

However, the sustainability problem with concrete comes from the energy used to extract these materials and make traditional concrete. These processes are very high energy use, which, besides depleting the earth’s energy sources, results in higher carbon dioxide emissions.

Thus, concrete is not considered a sustainable material, although various additives, such as fly ash which would otherwise go to waste, and even recycled plastic, are being trialed to improve this.

Sustainable building products include mycelium, certain types of wood, bamboo, stone, hemp fibers, sheep’s wool, and straw bales.

These materials are renewable and eco-friendly. They can be easily grown or harvested without a significant environmental impact.

Additionally, many sustainable materials can be recycled or reused to eliminate waste, further reducing their environmental impact.

Benefits of Sustainable Construction Materials

●     Improved long-term saving: Since sustainable materials are renewable, they can be easily and cheaply produced. Therefore, you can save money over the long term by using them in your construction projects.

●     Reduced carbon footprint: Unlike conventional construction materials, sustainable materials have a significantly lower carbon footprint. They reduce greenhouse gas emissions, like carbon dioxide, and help mitigate climate change.

●     Enhanced building performance: Usually, sustainability and performance go hand in hand. Sustainable materials can help you achieve better energy efficiency, thermal insulation, moisture protection, and soundproofing for optimal building performance.

●     Innovative design options: Unlike conventional construction materials, sustainable materials are often not limited by their composition and production methods. They offer innovative design options, allowing you to create visually stunning, high-performance buildings that don’t contribute to environmental problems.

●     Resource efficiency: Construction projects require a large amount of resources. Sadly, a percentage of these resources go to waste if sustainability isn’t at the heart of your operations.

Limitations of Sustainable Materials

●     Excessive and strenuous labor: To reap the full benefits of sustainable building materials, you need to integrate them into a holistic approach that considers everything from sourcing and design to construction. It’s not sustainable to harvest highly-renewable bamboo if the local workforce is exploited as a result.

●     High initial costs: Sustainable materials are more expensive than conventional materials, particularly before they become mainstream. However, their long-term benefits make them an excellent investment choice for commercial and residential construction.

●     Limited availability: Sustainable materials are not widely available. This makes it difficult to find them in the quantities you need for your new construction project.

●     They require experienced professionals: Most sustainable materials require handling expertise to reap their full benefits. They often require the use of specialized equipment and techniques for installation. Not all contractors are familiar with these techniques, and building codes might not be available for some.

Renewable Building Material

A light bulb with icons around it to represent the circular economy, recycling and renewable issues. There is a green, out of focus, leafy background and brown soil beneath.
Renewable materials are those that can quickly replace themselves. For example, a sustainably-managed forest for the supply of timber.

Renewable materials can be replenished quickly to keep pace with how quickly they’re used. These materials are not finite resources, making them ideal for sustainable building.

In comparison, non-renewable materials do not have the same replenishment rate. They take a long time to renew and are depleted faster than they get replenished.

It’s worth noting that while most renewable materials are sustainable, not all sustainable materials are renewable. For instance, although some recycled materials can be recycled indefinitely, you can’t replenish them in the time frame used. So, recycled glass, steel, and plastic are usually considered non-renewable materials.

Some of the most common renewable materials include cotton, wood, bamboo, the hemp plant, peat moss, recycled plastic, and sheep’s wool. These materials enjoy a second life after recycling, which allows them to be reused multiple times.

Benefits of Renewable Materials

  • They are eco-friendly: These materials don’t deplete the environment, as with their non-renewable counterparts. Thus, using renewable materials helps minimize your environmental impact, reducing pollution, global warming, and habitat destruction.

  • They support biodiversity: Renewable materials help maintain or boost biodiversity by providing natural habitats for plants and animals. Consequently, they contribute to a healthy ecosystem.

  • They are versatile and durable: Renewable materials are highly flexible, meaning they can be used in a wide range of applications and for various purposes. Some also have high durability and long lifespans, which makes them even better.

  • They promote local development: When you use renewable materials from your locality or region, you’re helping promote local economic growth by encouraging the development of sustainable and renewable industries.

Limitations of Renewable Materials

  • Low tolerance for harsh weather conditions: These materials tend to degrade or break down faster in extreme weather conditions, such as storms and heavy rain.

  • Their quality and performance may be questionable: Since these materials are sourced from nature, it’s harder to guarantee their quality and get consistent results.

Green vs. Sustainable vs. Renewable Materials: Similarities

Based on the above discussion, the following are the similarities between green, sustainable, and renewable materials:

  • These materials aim to minimize adverse environmental impacts like the depletion of natural resources and pollution.

  • Primarily, they’re derived from natural and recycled materials instead of fossil fuels and have a minimal impact on the environment from their manufacturing process.

  • They play a significant role in reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions throughout their lifecycle.

  • They contribute to the conservation of natural resources like water and forests.

  • They help reduce waste and pollution during the creation of new buildings.

Final Thoughts

The sustainable building encompasses green, renewable, and sustainable building materials.

Each building material has its benefits and limitations, making it essential to select the right one for your project.

The crucial factors to consider when choosing a sustainable building material include the environmental impact, availability of raw materials, cost efficiency, and durability.

Using sustainable building materials reduces greenhouse gas emissions, promotes local economic growth, and builds a healthier and more sustainable future.

If you’d like to read more about sustainable building materials, why not browse our article on that topic, “23 Sustainable Building Materials You Can Use Today?”

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