You are also keenly aware of greenwashing, companies claiming their product is environmentally friendly or “green” but is no different from the product next to it. It seems every new product claims to be “environmentally friendly”, including composite decking.
Well, is it? Is composite decking environmentally friendly?
Composite decking is environmentally friendly in that it is manufactured without harmful toxins from recycled material, reducing waste in landfills and saving trees from being cut down. Composite decking also requires minimal additional care or toxic chemicals for years of use and limited environmental impact.
On the other hand, composite decking is not environmentally friendly in that it cannot itself be recycled, adding to landfills in the future.
How environmentally friendly decking depends on the manufacture. Both wood decking cut from trees and manufactured composite. They all claim to be “environmentally friendly” and have ways that they are not.
With everything, you have trade-offs. One of the exchanges is, the longer the decking lasts, the less biodegradable it is. Which puts it into conflict. To be environmentally friendly, it needs to last with minimum upkeep. But for it to last with little maintenance, it has to be made in a way as not to break down, which makes it harmful to the environment. The exact opposite of its intent.
Let’s look first at what makes composite decking environmentally friendly. We can then look at some of the negative environmental trades made for a long-lasting, durable product.
Ways that Composite Decking is Environmentally Friendly
The two biggest ways that composite decking is environmentally friendly is that it is made from recycled material and is long-lasting. Requiring minimal upkeep over years of use and enjoyment.
“Green products are energy efficient, durable and usually require low maintenance. They’re often made from recycled materials, or from renewable sources, and can be biodegradable or easily reused or recycled at the end of their life cycle.”Jo Vieira
Composite decking excels in the first part of being environmentally friendly but lags in the final part.
End of Life.
Composite Deck is Environmentally Friendly with Its Long Life and Low Maintenance
The Number one reason to choose composite decking is also why it is environmentally friendly.
Long Life with no Environmentally Harmful Upkeep required.
Outside of composite decking, few decking options that will last 25+ years while delivering outstanding performance. One of composite decking’s greatest contribution to the environment is not needing to be replaced regularly.
A composite deck will have no harmful impact on the environment for between 25-50 years. That’s a long time. Chances are high with a pressure treated decking will be hauled to the landfill multiple times during the life of a composite deck.
Unlike wood decking that needs to be stained regularly with fossil fuel-based chemicals and sealant composite does not. A 500 sqft wood deck will require 2 gallons (8L) of stain or sealant annually just to be maintain.
“Over the 25-year life of the product, Fortress® Infinity® & Apex® boards only require water & dish soap to keep them looking like new.”Fortress
Fortress is not unique as composite decking requires only simple cleaning products that are not harmful to the environment. Safe in your kitchen sink, safe on your deck. Dawn is one of the most recommended cleaners, but any environmental dish soap can be used.
Composite Decking Reduced Waste in Landfills
One of the first things that started the innovation of composite decking is reducing waste being sent to landfills. Varying by company, but many of the leading companies manufacture their composite decking almost entirely out of recycled material.
|Composite Decking Brand||Percentage of Recycled Material|
|TimberTech PVC Azek||54%|
This includes recycled plastic and wood. Diverting plastic away from the landfill while saving trees.
“No tree is ever felled to make Fiberon Decking.”Fiberon
If you love trees, which I do. Using composite decking leaves more trees to be enjoyed in the forest.
“Because homeowners like you choose TimberTech® decking over wood, we saved more than 1 million trees since 2015 — that’s approximately 20,000 acres of forest.”TimberTech
MoistureShield, which is part of LEED® green building, provides us with a little more information about their decking’s recycled content.
- 25% post-consumer recycled content
- 70% Pre-consumer recycled content
The really good part is the Post-consumer recycled content. Material that has already provided value continuing by being recycled. From carrying your groceries home to holding your milk in the fridge. Plastic that has served us well before and continues to serve by being transformed into low maintenance decking.
Before getting too hard on TimberTech Azek’s low recycled material content, this is a fully recyclable material. Which unlike other composite decking, PVC decking can be recycled after use. But more about that later.
Positive Environmental Impact of Recycling Waste into Composite Decking
The most impressive positive impact on the environment made by composite decking is the reduction of material buried in landfills.
“We diverted approximately 290 million pounds of waste and scrap from landfills in 2019.”TimberTech
Compound that by what Trex and MoistureShield are diverting from the landfill. Composite decking is significantly reducing the amount of waste being buried.
On top of that, TimberTech is striving to include more hard to recycle material into its decking. For its decking is not only made from recycled material but also material that would not naturally be recycled. The very items that are jamming up our recycling efforts across North America.
Trex has a wonderful break down of composite decking’s positive environmental impact compared to Pressure treated wood decking.
- 36% fewer Greenhouse Gasses
- 47% less Toxic Air Pollution
- 84% less Acidification
- 80% less Water Contamination
- 53% less Smog
That’s a lot less damage to the environment by using Trex decking.
Looking more specifically at the environmental benefits of using recycled plastic in composite decking. Let’s use Trex, a leader in environmentally friendly decking. Recycling not only diverts waste away from the landfill but also reduces energy consumption compared to using new material.
Stanford University has found that recycling one ton of plastic saves.
- 5 774 Kwh of energy
- 16.3 barrels of oil
- 98 million Btu’s of energy
- 30 cubic yards of landfill space
Trex made out of more than just plastic bags, originally milk cartons and similar material were used, and I imagine they are still part of the formula. But if it was strictly bags, 140 000 bags are recycled for every 500 square foot Trex composite deck. The savings from recycling are roughly.
- 4 965 Kwh of energy
- 14 barrels of oil
- 84 million Btu’s of energy
- Freeing up 25.8 cubic yards of landfill
A huge net positive in reducing energy consumption from using recycled material in composite decking.
Minimal Waste Created in Making Composite Decking
Not only does composite decking divert waste away from landfills, but minimal waste is sent to the landfill from manufacturing.
If you make anything from dinner to a scrapbook, you will always have “garbage” after. Clipping or unusable material after to be thrown away. The same is with composite decking, except.
“Additionally, nearly 100% of factory runoff and refuse is recycled back into the manufacturing line.”Trex
TimberTech reuses 98% of its internal scraps from manufacturing decking. Meaning very little is being sent to the landfill from the factory.
Compounded with recycling composite decking, companies have gone to great lengths to minimize their environmental impact.
A lot of water is used in manufacturing. Just like in your kitchen, washing and rinsing is a regular part of creating. TimberTech striving to minimize the environmental impact, uses a closed-loop water filtration process. Which recycles 96% of their water annually used to make composite decking.
Fortress sources all their energy needs from solar power. With no fossil fuels being burned to manufacture their composite decking.
From plastic bags, milk cartons, pallets, sawdust, old oak flooring and water, composite decking plays a big part in recycling. Creating something beautiful out of garbage.
Sustainable Environmental Sourcing of Material for Composite Decking
There are three categories for sustainable material.
- Rapidly renewable
We already went over how composite decking is made mainly from recycled material.
Technically composite decking is not made from reclaimed material but recycled material. But in recycling, the lines can be a little blurred. Like Trex using shipping pallets in their decking. MoistureShield is chopping up old oak hardwood flooring to make new decking.
Most composite decking strives to use both pre-and post-consumer recycled material. Fortress composite decking is an exception. Rather than using wood fibres like many other composite decking companies do, they have chosen to use a rapidly renewable product, Bamboo.
“All of our decking features a high-density bamboo core, which is naturally more water resistant and blends perfectly with the recycled plastic components in our state of-the-art compound. This composition makes our products environmentally friendly and free of the toxic preservatives typically used to treat natural wood.”Fortress
Bamboo is an incredible strong grass that naturally regenerates in less than ten years. Less than the time criterion for rapidly renewable material.
Now for the other side of the coin, or should I say composite decking. How composite decking is not environmentally friendly.
The Environmental Challenge of End Use of Composite Decking
As we have seen, composite decking’s manufacturing and use have a limited negative impact on the environment.
In fact, I would say it is net positive similar to how a stand of trees removes carbon from the air. As long as the trees and deck are in use, they are environmentally friendly and good for the world by storing pollution.
But the end of life of composite decking is a different story. The very thing that makes composite decking great is what makes it bad for the environment. Composite decking is designed not to break down. So, unlike untreated wood, which can be composed to return to the soil, composite decking cannot. But an untreated deck would need to be replaced multiple times. Being very prone to rotting.
Compounding the problem is the fact that composite decking is a compound. A blend of organic fibres, like wood or bamboo and plastic.
Separately, organic fibres are designed to be composed, returning to the soil as healthy nutrients.
Plastic, which is in no way organic but can be recycled. In fact, most of the plastic of composite decking has been recycled.
But blended together, they can neither be recycled nor composted. You are left with a material that will lie in the landfill for hundreds if not thousands of years.
As noted, composite decking can be recycled in a limited way. As the leading manufacturers have proven. Trex is able to recycle 100% of waste products in the factory. But that is new decking material in a central location. Old composite decking scattered across the country poses a much different problem, which is not currently readily recyclable.
I go more into this problem in my article Reasons and Limits to Recycling Composite Decking.
Possibly a better solution is local incineration. Disposing of old composite decking and other material by burning to produce electricity and other energy sources. But again, it is not as complicated as recycling composite decking, but the infrastructure is still not in place to dispose of old composite decking.
The Environmentally Friendly Advantages of PVC Decking.
As I promised, Azek and other PVC decking, even though it has a lower initial level of recycled material, holds more promise. Unlike composite decking, which is a blend of materials, PVC is entirely made of plastic. Allowing old PVC decking to be ground up and recycled. Similar to milk cartons for composite decking. Meaning that you could recycle the decking in 50 years when it becomes time to replace your PVC deck. Saving it from going to the landfill or needing to be incinerated.
Initially, PVC decking is not as environmentally friendly as composite decking with its lower recycling content. But with the potential to entirely recycle the decking in the future, it may be more environmentally friendly for the decking’s full life cycle.
I am optimistic that in 50 -years, the infrastructure to recycle PVC will be in place. It is even possible that in 25-years when you need to replace your composite decking, we will have figured it out by then. But I am more optimistic with PVC than composite. Not a chemist, but the process looks simpler.
Conclusion of Composite Decking Environmental Friendliness
Composite decking has made great strides in reducing maintenance and the environmental impact of decking. Creating a good product both for the user and the environment. But we are still left with some challenges with end-use.
But in conclusion, would I say composite decking is environmentally friendly?
If we use Merriam-Webster official definition of eco-friendly is: “not environmentally harmful.”
I think the bar is low, but composite decking meets that requirement. Almost everything that goes into composite decking, in fact, 95% of it was headed to the landfill in the first place.
Yes, after enjoying the deck for 25 or more years, it is still headed to the landfill, which is a shame. But we are no worse off than we were before when the plastic cartons and sawdust was diverted from the landfill to make composite decking in the first place.
We may have only bought time, but time is precious. Maybe once the decking needs to be replaced, we will be better able to recycle the material. And even if not, we were able to use it for 25 more years before throwing it away. Is that not what we define as environmentally friendly. Longer lasting products, using less resources than disposable products.
Composite decking is that and so much more!