We spend 90% of our life time inside buildings. Therefore, it is undoubtedly necessary that these become efficient from the point of view of energy consumption. Insulation is essential to control the climate of our buildings, but equally important to undertake more sustainable measures when choosing insulation materials.

Most insulation materials used in construction in Portugal come from fossil fuels, such as plastics, which are easily available materials for various purposes and at a very affordable cost. However, we forget to account for its environmental cost. In fact, the long-term negative impact of these by-products on the environment is enormous. In addition, they cannot usually be recycled as they are difficult to dispose of, neither they do not degrade nor decompose. When recycling is possible, their quality gets lost and continues to do so until they can no longer be recycled. Therefore, the solution is to stop producing them.

In order to stop producing them, we must stop using them in many areas of our lives, such as the construction sector (since they are used at a large scale), and whenever there is an alternative. In construction, in addition to this material being used in insulation, such as EPS, XPS and PU, it is also commonly used in window frames.

When turned to waste, these products take up a considerable share of all the waste produced. The biggest threat is when this type of waste reaches the sea. The problems caused to marine animals are chemical and mechanical (McCauley, D.). The mechanic has to do with the very material found in the animals’ intestines, which is often lethal. The chemical aspect has to do with their absorbent properties which act like a sponge, capturing all the compounds that contaminate the ocean and when decomposing, release microparticles that are then swallowed by animals. As these animals are ingested by humans, this means human health is at risk.

Apparently, manufacturers of these materials insist that its recycling is possible and, therefore, they are not discarded. Now, if it is true that recycling is possible (when downcycling), it is no longer true that it is not discarded. The reason is simple: there is no market able to absorb the quantities of waste produced by these plastics, including CDW (construction and demolition waste). No one has yet been able to prove that it is possible to recycle these on a large scale due to the chemical process used in their manufacture, which makes it almost impossible to transform them into the same source material that resulted into waste. In addition, they lose their characteristics in each recycling process, reducing their quality (downcycling). Therefore, to use the recycling process as an argument for sustainability, is a deception.

However, there are times in the construction sector where there are no viable alternatives and plastic will therefore be the most suitable material but its use must be kept to a minimum. Where there are viable alternatives, with good thermal and acoustic performance, it is a necessary option if we want to contribute to a more sustainable planet. Alternative solutions will solve this problem. You should choose them whenever possible.

In the case of building insulation, we have available cork, mineral wool and other options from natural raw materials, as it is urgent to reject petroleum by-products, whenever the alternatives reduce the environmental impact of the construction sector.

Aline Guerreiro, PCS

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