By Cindy Hoedel
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The paper you read in the bathroom could find new life as a vanity top, your toilet could be turned into terrazzo and those empty beer bottles no one will pick up curbside could become your next backsplash.
Recycled materials are the latest darling of the environmentally friendly building movement. An array of flooring, countertops, tile, roofing, insulation and even upholstery fabrics are being made from post-consumer and post-production waste.
Post-consumer content refers to products that have been used by consumers, such as plastic milk jugs. Post-production refers to materials that didn't previously make it into products, such as glass left over from window making.
Annette Carlson, manager of a store that continuously seeks out new green building materials to sell, says the number of building materials made with recycled content that can be found on the Internet has more than doubled in each of the last few years.
The most recent modular house built by the Studio 804, a senior graduate studio for University of Kansas School of Architecture and Design students, contains some innovative recycled materials, including a driveway that's green in more ways than one.
The driveway of the home is made of StabiliGrid, interlocking honeycomb-like grids that are planted with grass. The grids are made of 100 percent post-consumer plastic, such as caps from plastic bottles and plastic shopping bags.
"We tried to minimize the amount of construction waste we created and also to use recycled materials wherever possible to reduce the burden on the landfills," said Lincoln Lewis, one of the students who worked on the project. "We've been very pleased with the way it looks and the way it has held up."
The 2-inch-thick grids rest on a bed of 2 inches of crushed stone for drainage and 1 inch of crushed gravel for leveling. The weight of a vehicle is distributed over the entire surface. In other words, a car or truck isn't heavy enough to press the grids into the subsoil.
El Centro Inc., the nonprofit community development agency that financed the project, likes the driveway for another reason. "One of the city's interests in green construction is reducing water runoff into the storm sewer system," said Jeff Fendorf, the agency's vice president of community development. "This really helps with that."
When Mike Malone and Gordon Davies of Kansas City were looking for a backsplash material for the kitchen of their new home, they didn't have a green agenda.
"We wanted something different that would stand out," Malone said. "It was an added benefit knowing we were using a green building material."
Malone and Davies first saw recycled glass tiles by Sandhill Industries of Boise, Idaho, during a homes tour. They were pleasantly surprised to discover the tiles were cheaper than conventional glass tile and competitive with porcelain and ceramic tile from home improvement warehouses.
As recycled products have gotten better-looking and cheaper, interest among mainstream homeowners has accelerated, says architect Mark McHenry, a principal of McHenry Schaffer Architecture in Kansas City.
Manufacturers are paying attention.
"I don't think there's ever been a time when this level of innovation has been focused on environmentally responsible building. It's unprecedented," McHenry said.
Mainstream homeowners will embrace a recycled material only if it meets three criteria, says architect Eric Piper, a principal of Piper-Wind Architects in Kansas City: "It is the right aesthetic for the purpose, it's going to wear as well or better than the alternative, and it's reasonably well priced."
Today's recycled building materials meet those requirements well enough that the notion that recycling is important is becoming ingrained in the culture, Piper said.
"It's exciting, because it absolutely is the right idea. When you throw something away, there isn't any 'a way.' It sits in the landfill forever."