Have you ever seen a building product advertise that it contains recycled content and wondered what that material actually was and where it came from? We certainly have. Many building products advertise recycled content, but most often the identity and chemical makeup of the recycled material are not shared.
Using products that contain recycled content can be a great way to reduce environmental impacts and support a circular economy by keeping still-useful materials out of landfills and avoiding the impacts of manufacturing virgin materials. Unfortunately, some recycled materials contain toxic chemicals that come along for the ride when incorporated into new products. For example, 2015 testing of a range of vinyl floors found high levels of toxic lead and cadmium from recycled content in the inner layers of the floors.
Defining recycled content
Recycled content is broadly broken down into pre-consumer and post-consumer materials. As defined by the U.S. Green Building Council:
- Post-consumer material is “waste material generated by households or by commercial, industrial, and institutional facilities in their role as end-users of the product, which can no longer be used for its intended purpose.” Some examples of post-consumer recycled material include glass bottles or vehicle tires.
- Pre-consumer material is “material diverted from the waste stream during the manufacturing process.” This definition excludes reuse of scrap materials back into the same process. Some examples of pre-consumer recycled material include treated waste from coal fired power plants (such as fly ash used in carpets or FGD gypsum used in drywall) or waste wood fiber from a sawmill used in composite wood like medium density fiberboard (MDF).
Ensuring safer recycled materials
While some recycled feedstocks, such as sawdust and glass containers, can be safely recycled into new products, others contain legacy contaminants that can lead to toxic exposures when used in new products. To address the potential for toxic re-exposures from recycled materials, HBN has been working with green building standards such as LEED and Enterprise Green Communities to include credits that consider not just if a product contains recycled content, but also what that content is and if it has been screened for potential hazards.
Enterprise Green Communities Criterion 6.2, Recycled Content and Ingredient Transparency, acknowledges that the need for content transparency applies to recycled content as well as virgin materials. It calls for using products that contain post-consumer recycled content where the origin of the recycled content is publicly disclosed along with information on how the recycled content is screened for or otherwise avoids heavy metals. If you are interested in pursuing this criterion, see our HomeFree Green Communities resources for an information request template that outlines the information needed.
The LEED Circular Products Pilot Credit Supply Chain Circularity option includes disclosure of the origin of the recycled material and lab analysis for common contaminants. More information is available in our blog post about the credit.
Disclosure documentation like Health Product Declarations (HPDs) provide an avenue to disclose this information. Recycled materials of known content are to be disclosed just like any other content on an HPD. HPD instructions for mixed recycled content suggest inclusion of information on the origin and testing performed on recycled materials.
Mind the data gap
Product manufacturers may not always have detailed content information available for the recycled materials they use. Supply chain tracking and internal screening requirements can help manufacturers ensure that the recycled materials they incorporate into new products don’t bring along hazardous contaminants.
HBN’s research into common contaminants in different recycled content streams can also help fill the gap in data. Our Optimizing Recycling series of reports provides detailed analysis of certain recycled feedstocks that may be used in building products and criteria for comparing and improving these feedstocks for a safe and circular economy.
The newest addition to HBN’s tools to help understand the content of recycled materials is a collection of recycled content Common Product profiles in Pharos. A Common Product (CP) is a list of substances that are most commonly present in a product type – in this case, within a recycled material stream. These profiles summarize key information from HBN’s research to identify chemicals that may be of concern within a recycled material. They can be used to:
- Help manufacturers who use recycled materials determine what chemicals of concern should be screened for in their incoming material.
- Help product or building certifications identify recycled materials that may contain chemicals of concern.
- Inform product content disclosure about what could be in mixed recycled content where composition is otherwise unknown.
These new recycled content CPs are now available in Pharos:
Tire-derived Crumb Rubber
Post-consumer Flexible PVC (Multiple Streams)
Post-consumer Nylon 6 and 6,6
Post-Consumer Wood Fiber (OSB, Plywood, and Pallet Waste)
Building a Sustainable Future
Removing toxic chemicals from new products makes a commercial afterlife possible, supports a safe and circular economy, and minimizes negative human health impacts. Using materials that are recoverable at the end of their life and building infrastructure to reuse or recycle them will lessen future impacts. Fully and transparently documenting product contents now also supports future recycling by identifying materials that may later be determined to be toxic.
As a building material specifier, the next time you consider a product with recycled content, make sure to ask the manufacturer for full transparency of product content, including where that recycled content came from.
As a manufacturer using recycled content, review our Common Product research to learn more about what contaminants might be present in that content and screen your incoming materials accordingly.
Together we can reduce human exposure and work towards a safe and circular economy.
 Vallette, Jim. “Post-Consumer Polyvinyl Chloride in Building Products.” Healthy Building Network, 2015. https://healthybuilding.net/uploads/files/post-consumer-polyvinyl-chloride-pvc-report.pdf.
 USGBC. “Building Product Disclosure and Optimization - Material Ingredients.” U.S. Green Building Council. Accessed January 27, 2021. https://www.usgbc.org/credits/new-construction-core-and-shell-schools-new-construction-retail-new-construction-healthca-24.