What is More Green – Exterior Wood or Composite Decking?

When building a project, small or large outdoors, so does the debate – composite decking or wood? The truth of the matter is that no material is perfect. The debate though, was not typically based on the science and research but more on emotion and assumptions.

Many activists have protested local municipalities who have proposed rebuilding with exotic wood products, arguing that the use of this wood was causing deforestation in developing countries. This is just not so. Another popular argument was that composite decking is more environmentally friendly because it’s derived from recycled materials. While this is in fact true, that statement doesn’t tell the whole story.

USING EXOTIC WOODS HELPS DEVELOPING NATIONS

Imagine living off of the land in the area in which you were born. You farm but the soil can be fickle and often you have to clear trees from new tracts of land, often by burning them, to plant crops in a new area. But this is not the only choice for many now. With markets developed for woods, there is now another choice. These same lands can support sustainable forestry. These same people now have the choice to cut some of the trees on the land but to do so in a way that continues to keep trees and forests intact while offering an alternative. The increased wood markets have helped to preserve forests in developing nations, not take them down.

How do you know the wood is actually sustainable? The Lacey Act requires it before wood can be imported into the United States.

RECYCLED MATERIALS DOESN’T MEAN NO ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

No life cycle analysis has ever been completed specifically comparing exotic wood decking versus composite decking. When an analysis was completed in 2012, looking at the environmental impacts of composite decking for the entire time of use, the picture was not as perfect as some would have you believe.

Yes, composite decking is made out of recycled materials. This makes it seem like an environmentally friendly product. This decking product is made out of recycled plastic shopping bags, wood mill waste and old pallets, which is pretty neat. The problem with composite decking is that all of the environmentally friendly aspects of it are concentrated in material-sourcing. Once you factor in the high environmental impacts of the fossil fuels required to manufacture composite decking, as well as greenhouse gas emissions, the overall impact of composite decking products is much higher than traditional decking products.

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NOTE – The research cited can be viewed here.

A version of this information originally appeared in the 2014 International Wood Magazine which you can view here.