Insulation makes your house more energy-efficient, allowing you to consume less energy without compromising comfort. But some people are concerned with the process that goes through the production of these insulation materials. So, they often wonder if insulation will really help the environment.
Insulation isn’t bad for the environment, as long as you’re using the right materials. Some products, such as Cellulose or Polyester, will have a great positive impact on the environment. However, other products such as Extruded polystyrene (XPS), can cause harm to the environment.
In the rest of this post, we will describe what are the potential impacts of insulation on the environment and which specific products you have to use to make sure that they are not damaging the environment. Stick around because this can help you make a better, “greener” decision.
Environmental Impact of Insulation
Homeowners believe that having proper insulation allows them to reduce their dependence on non-renewable resources, making their houses more eco-friendly. However, a homeowner needs to consider many other things to determine the impact of insulation on the environment.
Here are the factors that will be useful in determining whether an insulation material is good or bad for the environment:
- R-Value: this number refers to the efficiency of insulation. It’s the easiest way to tell how well a material can prevent heat from entering or leaving your house. The higher the R-Value, the better it is for climate control. However, a higher R-Value can also make insulation material more expensive. So, it would be best to find the right R-Value for the climate in your area.
- Global Warming Potential (GWP): this number refers to heat absorbed in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is the base for GWP with a value of 1. Some insulation types use materials with a GWP of 1,430, making them less likely to provide you with a positive environmental impact.
- Production Process: different insulation materials have varying impacts on the environment in terms of their production process, and some of them may not even be sustainable. For example, fiberglass requires fuel-intensive processes, while spray foam relies on petroleum for production; both use non-renewable resources.
- Recyclability: there are recyclable insulation materials, but many aren’t. In fact, recycling facilities even have special rules for insulation materials because of the ingredients used for their production. However, many of the ones that we use for our homes are reusable, which is another form of recycling.
These 4 factors will tell you whether home insulation will have a positive impact on the environment. For example, extruded polystyrene has an R-Value of 5, which is better than most insulation types, but it carries a GWP of 1,430! Spray polyurethane foam has an R-Value of 6.7 and only has a GWP of 1,030. Although both can warm the earth significantly more than carbon dioxide, we can already determine which of these two is more eco-friendly.
Main Insulation Types and Their Environmental Impact
Insulation with a higher R-Value doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good for the environment. The materials used, its production process, and recyclability are other factors we still need to consider. There are a lot of different types of insulation out there, so we will cover only the basics here. You can check some of our sources below if you want a more in-depth view.
Cellulose insulation has an R-Value of R-3.5 per inch of thickness, similar to most insulation materials. It’s cheaper, but you may need thicker layers for houses in colder areas. It also uses recycled newsprint, making it more sustainable and environment-friendly. This is, from all the common options, the most environmentally friendly.
According to the Cellulose Insulation Manufacturers Association, insulating a 139sqm (1,500 sq ft) house will recycle as much newsprint as an individual would consume in 40 years. It removes tons of waste and turns them into products that allow homeowners to consume less energy.
The biggest drawback of using cellulose is that it degrades faster than other types and that it is not resistant as resistant to water and moisture as other types.
In certain places, you might have difficulty in recycling it because the fire-resistant added to the recycled newspapers makes it challenging to recycle.
But it is, overall, a very sustainable option and good for the environment, since you are taking a product that would go otherwise to the landfill and create emissions and you are converting it into a new product that can help insulate your house.
Fiberglass can be installed basically in three ways, batts, spray-applied and
dense-packed. The R-Value varies between 3.3 and 4.2 depending on the specific product.
This insulation material uses glass fibers with a mix of other ingredients, all of which can require fossil-fuel intensive processes. Moreover, some of it uses formaldehyde binders, which are proved to be bad for our health. Aside from this, only a handful of recycling facilities accept fiberglass because it’s also fire-resistant, making it difficult to turn into other products. But compared to extruded polystyrene and spray polyurethane foam, it has a much lower GWP because it doesn’t use blowing agents.
When it comes to longevity, fiberglass is a better option than cellulose because it doesn’t degrade as fast. This trait allows you to reuse fiberglass on-site without excess waste and without reducing its R-Value. It is a good idea to use spray-applied or dense-packed fiberglass, making it a good option for insulating your home. As far as batts are concerned, due to the difficulty in proper installation, which results in a huge decrease in performance, it is not one of the preferred options.
Sometimes confused with fiberglass because it can come also in batts, mineral wool is also a good option. However, there are some environmental concerns, so you should choose low-emitting products.
This product should be used only when fire resistance is a concern or as a superior option to fiberglass batts for small jobs.
It can be a very energy intensive product to manufacture, hence the lower preference compared to other products.
With cotton batts, the main concerns are that the shipping energy required may be significant. While it has a similar R-Value of R-3.5 per inch, the energy that it requires is higher than other types of insulation.
Although recycled, cotton batts aren’t as environment-friendly because it needs water and pesticide; both have varying negative environmental impacts. Freshwater is a limited resource, and using it to grow something that we’ll use for insulation may not be the best option. On the other hand, using and producing pesticides isn’t environment-friendly, either.
Although cotton batts are very useful for insulation, and it doesn’t have as much GWP as what fiberglass has, it’s still something that you may want to think twice before using. Cotton is quickly becoming a renewable resource, but the process that goes into producing this material still has a long way to be considered an environment-friendly option.
Other Insulation Materials with Positive Impact on the Environment
After talking about the mainstream products that are good for the environment, let’s look into other products that are not so main stream but that show some promise.
While the idea of using sheep’s wool could seem from a quick glance to be the greenest of options, it is not so. While it is true that you cannot get much greener than using a naturally forming product whose whole purpose is to actually insulate (in this case an animal), the biggest problem with sheep’s wool is that wool agricultural practices are a high contributor to global warming.
With that in mind, while the product itself is very environmentally friendly, the fact that wool agricultural practices are such a big contributor to global warming makes it not such a great (but still acceptable) option. It can also depend on how the actual wool you are using has been source, so do not discard it straight away.
Another great option that is being used but it is not as common as the mainstream products is polyester. Polyester has all the good characteristics that fiberglass has, but without its downsides.
It is safe to handle and install, without needing any special equipment for the installation to be completed. However, it is a pricier option than most of the other options and it can be more difficult to source, depending on where you are located. It might be a great option if you want to DYI the insulation because you don’t need to have any health or safety concerns that you could have with fiberglass, but if you are contracting someone to do the job for you, you might be hesitant to pay the difference.
Expanded cork board
The main concern of this product is that it is manufactured mostly in Europe so, if you live elsewhere in the globe, the shipping environmental impact could be substantial.
Apart from that, cork boards are a natural material and an environmentally friendly option to insulate your home.
Low-density wood fiber
Similar to expanded cork boards, the main concern of this product is that it is manufactured mostly in Europe, so, if you live elsewhere in the globe, the shipping environmental impact could be substantial.
Wood-fiber insulation is made from softwood chips, which makes it a renewable option. It can be manufacture with either a wet or dry method, and the composition varies depending on the product type: batt, board, or blown.
This product is water-resistant and, in some cases, can act as an air barrier as well. So you can make it weather and wind-protected in one step. In addition to that, it doesn’t make you each or has dangerous chemicals.
Cementitious foam (Air-Krete)
While usually using cement is not a sign of being environmentally friendly, this cementitious foam is also an interesting alternative for insulation.
The main reasons is that the product is mostly air with a bit of cement in between. Advantages are that it is fireproof, VOC free and rodent proof.
Is Insulation Environment-Friendly?
Insulation has an immediate impact on the environment; it improves houses’ energy efficiency, reducing their demand for local utilities. Although renewable energy is becoming more efficient, most of us still rely on high carbon emissions. Finding ways to reduce our energy demand is one way to have a positive impact on the environment.
However, the materials and processes that we use to produce insulation materials aren’t, sometimes, as environment-friendly as we think. In fact, some insulation materials can cause more harm than good.
So, when choosing an insulation type, make sure you are picking one of the sustainable options we have discussed above.
Home insulation offers a lot of advantages for homeowners, but only if you pick the right product. If we’re only talking about the environmental impact, it would, sometimes, be better not to have insulation and power the house through renewable energies than to have one that warms the earth 1,430 times than carbon dioxide. So, while insulation is a critical step into making your house more environmentally friendly, sustainable insulation is mandatory to achieve that.
Every household should have proper insulation because it makes us less dependent on fossil fuel and other non-renewable resources. But as a homeowner, you should be very careful when choosing the insulation material you’re going to use.
- By BuildingGreen Inc: Insulation Recommendations
- Green Living Ideas: Is Your Insulation Bad for the Environment?
- USI Inc.: Can Using the Proper Insulation Actually Impact the Environment?
- Building Green: Rigid Foam Insulation and the Environment
- Natural Insulation: Home Insulation and Its Environmental Impact
- University of Massachusetts: Cellulose Insulation – A Smart Choice
- RCS: Environmental Sustainability of Cellulose-Supported Solid Ionic Liquids
- Zero Energy Project: Does Your Insulation Have Low Embodied Carbon?
- Building Green: Avoiding the Global Warming Impact of Insulation
- Efficiency Vermont: Insulation Materials – Environmental Considerations