Is Recycled Plastic Building Material Truly Sustainable?

A photograph of recycled plastic tiles on the side of a building. On top of the photograph is an icon showing a pair of hands holding the earth with a green "Yes" and a red "No" below. Across the top are the words "Is Recycled Plastic Building Material Truly Sustainable?" written in white letters on a semi-transparent blue background.

The devastating impact of plastic waste on the environment has never been more apparent.

Plastic makes up 80 percent of marine debris that affects the livelihoods of marine species.

Many people increasingly turn to solutions such as recycled plastic building material to tackle plastic waste. But is recycled plastic building material truly sustainable?

Recycled plastic building material is sustainable because it’s long-lasting, reduces waste, saves energy, and is highly versatile. Recycled plastic is also cost-effective and easy to modify. Therefore, it’s a sustainable material that ensures a win-win for the environment and our pocketbooks.

In the rest of this article, I’ll discuss what qualifies as a sustainable building material and why recycled plastic fits into this category.

I’ll also discuss situations when recycled plastic building material may be unsustainable.

Let’s get started!

What Is a Sustainable Building Material?

A high-rise building with lots of glass windows and green plants growing up it. There are symbols overlain, including recycling arrows, leaves and question marks.
A sustainable building material must be renewable, non-toxic, and have low embodied energy.

A sustainable building material consumes little energy during its manufacture, can be replenished quickly, and releases minimal carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Moreover, it should be possible to reuse or recycle the material at the end of its lifetime.

Recycled plastic building material makes it into the category of sustainable materials for the following reasons:

Waste Reduction

An image with the words "Zero Waste" written in 3D golden letters in all caps on top of a green textured background.
Zero waste is a hard goal to achieve. It can be done, but if that’s beyond your grasp, waste reduction is a good place to start.

Plastic pollution is one of our most pressing environmental crises today, and plastic production has increased exponentially over the years since the middle of the last century.

For instance, its production rose to 448 million tons in 2015 from 2.3 million tons in the 1950s.

We should ask ourselves, “Where do these high volumes of plastic go at the end of their lifecycle?” The answer has become the topic of environmental debate in recent years; they end up in landfills and oceans.

According to the UN Environment Program, less than 10 percent of the seven billion tons of plastic generated since the 1950s has been recycled. The rest is discarded as waste in oceans and landfills.

Encouraging the use of recycled plastic building materials helps reduce this waste. Turning waste plastic into new building material reduces the amount of plastic that pollutes the environment.

Energy Conservation

Plastic generation is an energy-intensive process that uses crude oil as a feedstock. However, according to the Association of Plastic Recyclers, recycled plastic resins consume less energy than virgin plastic manufacture.

Recycling PET, HDPE, and PP plastic resins reduces total energy consumption by 79%, 88%, and 88%, respectively.

Besides the recycling process, recycled plastic building material conserves energy during transportation and construction. Since plastic is lighter than concrete and steel, it’s easier to transport and lift without the need for heavy equipment and the use of excessive energy.

Moreover, plastic is an excellent insulator due to its poor thermal conductivity. Therefore, when used in a building, it helps conserve energy by creating an insulating barrier between the internal and external environment. In the long run, it helps lower your heating and cooling costs.

Durable and Long-Lasting

A building crouching down on scaffolding examining a recycled plastic roof tile. In the bottom left hand corner of the image is an icon showing a shield with strong arms either side.
Recycled plastic roof tiles will last a very long time and survive the worst storms nature can muster.

Durability is essential in determining whether a material is sustainable because it contributes to extended lifecycles.

A long-lasting building material reduces the need for building repairs, which reduces energy consumption and helps to preserve precious raw materials.

Recycled plastic building materials are highly durable and can last a lifetime.

Plastics are made from polymers that won’t corrode like metal or rot like wood. Thus, they are very durable for any construction project, especially for uses exposed to the elements.

Since most plastics are non-porous, they resist moisture and most chemicals. This means the building material won’t rot or warp over time, making them an excellent investment for any structure exposed to these conditions.

The interesting bit is that plastic requires little to no maintenance. Unlike natural building materials that may require regular repairs and painting, plastic does not need any such maintenance.


A truly sustainable building material must be environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable.

The economic aspect of sustainability looks at how much a material costs over its lifetime. Generally, recycled plastic building materials have a lower life-cycle cost than their traditional counterparts like wood and steel.

For instance, installing one square foot of PVC deck boards costs between $5 and $13. On the other hand, installing wooden decking boards costs between $10 and $20 per square foot.

The time it takes to install and finish a project is also significantly shorter when using recycled plastic building material. This helps save money in labor costs and minimize disruption by being time conscious.

High Versatility

The versatility of plastic means it can be used for a wide range of applications, eliminating the need to get new materials for each project.

From deck boards, siding, and flooring to cupboards and cabinets in the kitchen, recycled plastic building material is ideal for any project.

Besides that, plastics are available in various shapes, textures, and sizes; some look like wood or stone to offer a more natural look. Thus, you don’t have to compromise on design or finishes in your project.

Instances When Recycled Plastic Building Material May Be Unsustainable

A photograph of a large stack of baled plastic waste. There are two inset photos. The inset in the top left shows nicely-sorted plastic waste in a clean recycling bin being carried by a woman; it has a green tick in the corner to indicate this is sustainable. The other inset image is in the top right and shows mixed "black bag" waste that contains lots of non-plastic and non-recyclable waste. In the bottom right of this inset image is a whit cross in a red circle to indicate that it is not sustainable.
Good quality, well-sorted feedstock makes for high-quality recycled plastic. The presence of non-recyclable plastic or, even worse, municipal waste will make the end product unusable.

Looking at the merits of recycled plastic building material, we can safely conclude it’s a sustainable option for your construction project.

That said, there are instances when this material may be unsustainable. They include:

  • If recycled from low-grade plastics: Recycling low-grade plastics releases harmful particles into the atmosphere. In such a case, the resulting recycled plastic building material will be unsustainable since it contributed considerably towards environmental pollution. Only certified recycled plastics should be used.
  • Wishcycling: It entails putting non-recyclable materials into the recycling bin, resulting in contamination. Wishcycling makes it difficult to separate recyclables from wishfully recycled items. When this happens, the end product might not be viable, or at least requires lengthy and costly manual sorting.
  • End-of-life issues: When recycled plastic building material reaches its end-of-life, it should be disposed of properly. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen, leading to environmental pollution and unsustainability.

For these reasons, recycling plastic materials responsibly is the only way to make them truly sustainable building materials.

Final Thoughts

Recycled plastic building material is a sustainable choice when used appropriately.

As with any construction material, it’s essential to consider the full lifecycle impact of plastic and ensure that the sourcing, recycling, use, and disposal are environmentally responsible.

Moreover, it’s worth noting that sustainable building is not just about materials. It incorporates design, energy efficiency, and the overall impact of the building on its surroundings.

Therefore, you should take a holistic approach to sustainability when building with recycled plastic to create environmentally-friendly buildings that are functional and beautiful buildings.  

What is the difference between sustainable, green, and renewable materials? Check out this article where we compare these materials.

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