Waste Not: Recycled Building ProductsRecycled building products are not just for hippies anymore.

  • By Nigel F. Maynard
  • Source: BUILDING PRODUCTS Magazine
  • Publication date: 2004-07-01

Once upon a time, only hard-core greenies and forward-thinking builders and architects practiced sustainable design. And few clients demanded green building products in their houses. Just as well, because finding such specs would have been difficult.

Today, of course, it's a whole different story. Lots of pros and homeowners are championing the benefits of green building design and products, and many manufacturers are responding with a wide array of products that not only do well but look good, too.

A significant subset of the green product category consists of items made from recycled materials. Unlike traditional green products—which, though environmentally friendly, may be derived from virgin resources—recycled-content products contain primarily waste. Utilizing this waste not only helps the environment, but also results in visually interesting products that can add excitement to your projects.


The growing inventory of recycled products includes such things as insulation made from old jeans and newspaper; glass tiles made from recycled bottles or automobile windshields; countertops made from waste paper, plants, cloth fibers, glass, cement, aluminum, and polystyrene; terrazzo flooring made from recycled glass; fiberboard panels made from recycled paper; and floor tiles made from car tires.

Earlier versions of these products were not well received because they were plagued by performance problems and looked too “earthy.” The message was clear: If the products were to enjoy mass appeal they had to look good, says Lisa DiMartino, vice president of marketing for Seattle-based Environmental Home Center, a distributor of sustainable building products.

The doors shown here are made of ShetkaStone, a material constructed from 100 percent recycled paper, plant, or cloth fibers—anything from waxed paper to old jeans. Although ideal for counter-tops, ShetkaStone can be made into a variety of products, including soap dishes, benches, and molding. 952-758-6577.


Companies responded. Recycled-content products improved in performance and appearance, and even took on a certain cachet with well-educated, politically aware consumers. Now architect Craig Newick uses a lot of recycled products derived from natural ingredients, such as glass tiles. “Natural materials are more interesting because they respond to light in a wonderful way and are naturally more complex,” says Newick, principal of Lindroth + Newick in New Haven, Conn.

One example of this nontraditional approach is the use of unusual paper for doors or molding like ShetkaStone, a solid-surface material fabricated from wastepaper and plant and cloth fibers. Manufactured by New Prague, Minn.-based All Paper Recycling, the stuff comes in any color and can be sawed, sanded, glued, nailed, or screwed and can be finished with any wood or stone sealant, says president Stanley J. Shetka. The company also manufactures durable ShetkaStone counter-tops that are waterproof and can accept an under-mount sink.

Other paper-based counters include PaperStone, made by Puyallup, Wash.-based KlipTech Composites and distributed by Environmental Home Center, and Richlite, from Tacoma, Wash.-based Richlite. Both companies' products accept under-mount sinks.

Vetrazzo is a solid-surface product made with more than 80 percent recycled glass. Vetrazzo, usually used to make countertops, bar tops, fireplace surrounds, tub decks, and tables, also can be applied to floors and walls. Safe for both indoor and outdoor use, each piece is custom fabricated and sealed. Colors include glacier, ruby, and and custom mixtures. 510-843-6916.


Manufacturers are spinning recycled paper into insulation and fiberboard panels as well. Cellulose insulation, which is made of 85 percent wood waste or recycled paper and 15 percent fire-retardant chemicals, resists airflow better that fiberglass insulation because it's denser, claims the Cellulose Insulation Manufacturers Association in Dayton, Ohio.

West Trenton, N.J.-based Homasote Co. offers a variety of structural fiberboard products made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled newsprint. Its list of products includes DesignWall pre-finished interior paneling and Comfort Base resilient board concrete flooring.

Suitable for counters and floors, EnviroGlas is made from100 percent recycled glass mixed with epoxy resin to create a polished surface. It is poured to fit any shape. Colors are determined by the hues of the epoxy and the glass shards. The epoxy color can be matched to paint swatches. 888-523-7894.



Large amounts of glass also are ending up in building products. Berkeley, Calif.-based Counter Production's Vetrazzo and Vitracrete solid surfaces contain more than 80 percent recycled items, including old traffic lights, stained-glass scraps, and junk culled from curbside glass collection. Vetrazzo is made from polished and colored glass chips, whereas Vitracrete features ground recycled glass for a more monochromatic look.

Brooklyn, N.Y.-based IceStone's recycled-glass countertop surfacing product, IceStone, is made of 75 percent recycled glass and cement and is suitable for floors, walls, and counters.

Another company, American Terrazzo of Garland, Texas, sells a thin-set epoxy resin product called EnviroGlas Terrazzo that also contains recycled glass. Designed for seamless 3/8-inch floors and countertops, the easy-maintenance material resists chemicals and bacterial growth, says company president Tim Whaley.

Made from 75 percent recycled glass and concrete, IceStone surfacing products are ideal for countertops, back-splashes, vanities, and shower surrounds, the company says. The fabrication, installation, and maintenance of IceStone surfaces follow essentially the same process as used with natural stone. The product comes in 4-foot-by-8-foot slabs or large-format tiles and comes in 20 standard colors; custom colors also are available. 718-624-4900.


Don't make the mistake of thinking that all glass tiles are made from recycled materials. According to John Marckx, executive vice president of Carlsbad, Calif.-based Oceanside Glasstile, most manufacturers concoct their products from fused glass that is cut from flat glass and given two coats of paint.

“Fused glass does not fall into the category of a green or recycled product, because you need to work from virgin material,” he says.

Manufacturers that offer recycled-glass tiles include Oceanside Glasstile, Bedrock Industries of Seattle, and Sandhill Industries of Boise, Idaho. Oceanside produces four lines in more than 38 colors. Bedrock's Blazestone and Sandhill's tiles are available in various shapes and sizes. Another firm, Dogged Enterprises of Seattle, makes recycled-glass outdoor pavers.


This firm offers five collections of glass tile that include decos, field tile, liners, and trim. The tiles, which are made from discarded bottles, are 85 percent recycled glass. They can be used on walls, countertops, backsplashes, floors, fireplace surrounds, pools, and more. Custom designs are available. 877-648-8222.

Oceanside Glasstile

Using recycled products seems like a win-win proposition. However, cost is a concern. Recycled glass tiles can cost as much as $30 per square foot, versus $12 to $15 for fused glass and $2 for ceramic. And some concrete and glass countertops may exceed granite in price.

“There are a lot of things that would be nice to use, but they are expensive,” says Healdsburg, Calif.-based architect Obie G. Bowman.

Also, it's critical to research recycled products for unique characteristics. Bowman says, for example, he sometimes uses concrete containing 50 percent fly ash because ultimately it is stronger than regular concrete. But it also develops more slowly and takes longer to achieve its strength, so it's important to design accordingly.

Finally, Angela Dean, principal of AMD Architecture in Salt Lake City and author of Green by Design: Creating a Home for Sustainable Living, says it's important to know all the ingredients in the products you specify.

The paper used to make Richlite countertops comes from managed forests across the continent. The manufacturer says its products are stain-, scratch-, and heat-resistant. The material is solid color all the way through, and light touch-up work takes care of minor blemishes. Like some woods, Richlite darkens over time due to UV exposure and oxidation. 888-383-5533.


For instance, binding agents used to hold some of these materials together may be toxic, she says. Some paper-based countertops use formaldehyde in the manufacturing process. Heating eradicates the chemical, manufacturers claim, but clients still deserve to know about its role in the product's fabrication.

No longer the exclusive province of visionaries and hippies, recycled products have gone mainstream, bringing benefits for everyone.

–This story first appeared in RESIDENTIAL ARCHITECT magazine.