Question

Are there green alternatives to sheet rock?

Asked by Tracy
Olalla, WA

Something safer to use.

Answer

Elizabeth DiSalvo

Answered by Elizabeth DiSalvo

Norwalk, CT

Trillium Architects

April 30, 2012

Hi Tracy I am not sure if you are concerned with:

  • your safety as a home 'dweller' living in drywall, or
  • safety as an installer- installing drywall, or
  • for the safety of the earth itself.

I will try to address all three aspects of drywall.

Perfectly safe and even quite green 

Lets take a look at Drywall and then a couple of alternatives.

In the heat of the building boom and after hurricane Katrina when drywall was in such high demand that US plants could not produce it fast enough, unregulated drywall was imported from China and installed in some homes in America. This Chinese drywall causes a lot of health problems and damage to homes. But this was an odd things that happened at a specific time and should not blacken the reputation of all drywall.

Most drywall is perfectly safe and even quite green. Let's look at some of the aspects of a product that make it 'green':

  • health and safety,
  • material sustainability and
  • production.

Health and Safety

Drywall is a relatively safe product. Yes there are health hazards associated with the dust created when installing but once the product is installed and inert there is little or no health risk.

  • Mold can grow on drywall, when conditions are right but that is not the norm. Most houses exist for decades with drywall and no mold.
  • But yes - it is is possible to develop mold or mildew on the paper that sandwiches drywall.

Material sustainability

Drywall is produced in the US from gypsum and paper. The gypsum is generally 90-95% recycled from previously used drywall and the paper that sandwiches the gypsum is 100% recycled newspaper.

Sometimes additives are added to make drywall fire or water resistant. These additives - like magnesium oxide- are generally natural and safe and used in relatively small quantities.

Production

Drywall is not that 'good for the earth' in its production. Up to 1% of greenhouse gasses have been attributed to drywall production. This is a big deal.

So bottom line, if you did not get drywall form the bad shipments of Chinese drywall years ago, and if you install it- as most people do- in a way that does not lead to mold in mildew issues, and the installers wear masks and take care during installation, drywall is a relatively harmless product.

Making it better

Companies that make drywall are starting to address mold and mildew issues by making drywall without paper on each side and they are starting to address greenhouse gas issues by reducing emissions in their plants.

One company - Serious Materials has a new product called ‘EcoRock’ and claims it uses 80% less energy to produce its core, resulting in 80% lower CO2 emissions.

Alternatives to drywall

An alternative to drywall would be to use true plaster. Before drywall was invented most houses used plaster to finish the walls. It is a very clean, green material but labor intensive to install as it is applied by hand in layers of wet applications by skilled installers.

You could also forgo drywall all together and use wood paneling, which comes in anything from less expensive thin panels or beautiful soft or hardwood boards.

  • Wood boards would be good for you but check sustainability issues and sources before choosing.
  • Depending on the wood, it might not be the most sustainable, earth friendly choice.

For more information:

Read "Is there such a thing as green drywall? If so, what alternatives to conventional drywall do you recommend?" a Q&A answered by Mary Cordaro.

Tagged In: drywall

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