I saw this clever little bamboo toilet roll while lunching in Ubud the other day and it got me thinking. The standard material for toilet roll holders is metal. If we take the toilet roll holders in my house, all four of them are made from steel. I did some research and it turns out that steel as a material utilises 16 times more energy by mass than wood, or in this case bamboo. You see the ‘embodied energy’ of steel and other metals, or the total energy expended to procure and transport the material, manufacture it into products and then maintain and repair them during their lifespan is very high. Kiln-dried hardwood is far lower by comparison.
Embodied energy is measured as a quantity of non-renewable energy per unit of building material, either by mass or volume. The science is a tad imprecise, but it stands as a basic launching pad to start looking at the materials we use and what their real ‘cost’ is, from cradle to grave.
I pondered how much energy could be saved in my own house if I replaced the metal I used with wood every time. Instead of steel towel racks, I could use reclaimed wood. Out go the steel soap racks, bring in the wood! Then I started thinking about how much the world save if we all starting using lower embodied energy materials.
I was chatting with my mate Dave the other day about using bamboo blinds as a weather barrier in the home to help prevent rain and wind from entering, as it tends to do in the tropics. He suggested I put up a bamboo privacy blind between the two houses on our property to create a visual privacy barrier. I was saying that I was reticent to as it gets mouldy and has to be maintained. Yep, says Dave, it gets mouldy because it is an organic material, and the beauty about organic materials is you can replace them relatively cheaply and they will decay and return to the earth. Bamboo is cheap because it is a fast growing material, its production costs are low, and it is easily renewed. Compare that to plastic sheet roofing, also a relatively cheap material to buy, but its downside is it’s made from fossil fuels and hence has a high embodied energy, and in the harsh tropic environment, it ends up on landfill after 5 or so years and is still there in another thousand years.
I saw a termite and rot-ridden solid Merbau deck the other day that was two years old that the owner had decided to replace with - get this - Merbau! Cost considerations had been the major determining factor as it is around 30-50% cheaper than reclaimed Ulin. But imagine having to replace your deck every two years… Ulin has a Class 1 durability rating, meaning its probable in-ground life expectancy is +25 years. By comparison, Merbau has a Class 3 in-ground durability rating giving it a 5-15 year probable life-span. Choosing a timber that has a higher up-front cost but lasts 10 times as long makes better economic sense at the end of the day. What about if we apply my above argument that Merbau is an organic product that will degrade over time, hence it doesn’t matter if we replace it? True, but this timber species has a high environmental cost because at present it is being solely harvested from natural forests in West Papua and PNG. Again it got me thinking, no point using timber if used in an application that the species is not designed for, if it is not installed correctly, or if it costs the earth. It may seem cheap, but how much does it really cost?
So the choice of material in your building project is both about the energy used to produce the end product, the relative life span you will get from it, the way you install it, and the local environmental impact its extraction has at the point of origin.
Imagine if all products came with a rating system that informed consumers on these factors. That is just what the Rainforest Foundation decided to do in Norway recently when they tackled the issue of deforestation due to the oil palm industry. They worked with major food producers to generate a web-based tool to inform consumers on the use of palm oil in their products. Due to extensive media coverage, this resulted in a 64% decrease in palm oil use in Norway over a year. Wow!
In the meantime product rating is not widespread in Indonesia, so it is up to us as consumers to do our research. Looking at embodied energy in building materials is a start, and using recycled products wherever possible is an excellent alternative.
Love to hear your thoughts and experiences below.
Till next time!