MAY 2011
                                        

Waste in the Walls: Cellulose Insulation Keeps Paper Out of Landfills

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that Americans generated a total of 243 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) during 2009, the lion share of which was paper and paperboard at a whopping 28.2 percent. For comparison, the next largest category, food scraps, comprised only 14.1 percent of the total.

Food decomposes quickly, but buried paper, sheltered from rain and air, is highly resistant to deterioration when compacted in a landfill. Garbage archeologists have actually excavated perfectly readable newspapers that are more than 50 years old.

In 2009, 68.4 million tons of MSW paper and paperboard were generated and 42.5 million tons recovered, leaving 25.9 million tons going to landfills – a huge waste of an otherwise valuable commodity.

While recycling paper generally entails the consumption of chemicals and the production of emissions, there is one notable exception: recycled cellulose insulation. Newspapers and other paper sources are promptly ground up, treated with chemicals and go on to long and useful lives keeping homes warmer in winter and cooler in summer. It is potentially one of the greenest recycling routes, and an ideal strategy for conserving ever more costly landfill space. 


According to the Cellulose Industry Manufactures Association (CIMA), if all the paper currently being put into landfills each year were converted to cellulose insulation, it would save approximately eight million tons of CO2 emissions – the equivalent of taking every car off the road in New Mexico and Nevada.

Cellulose insulation has a soft, pliable, cotton-like texture. Although it may be comprised of upwards of 90 percent post-consumer recycled newspaper, it has high R-values ranging from 3 to 3.7.

“All building products, including cellulose insulation, have suffered severely over the past several years due to the recession and the drop in new construction, but cellulose insulation has fared somewhat better than other materials due to increased use in retrofits,” said Daniel Lea, executive director of CIMA. “Since money is tight and energy costs keep rising, cellulose insulation is viewed as one of the quickest, easiest, most cost effective ways a home can immediately reduce heating and cooling bills.”

As a top executive at an electric utility recently said, “A megawatt conserved prevents a megawatt of new generation having to be built.” Over the past decade, the truth of this statement has driven utility regulators to encourage, often mandate, private, public and cooperative utilities to institute a vast array of energy conservation programs.

Federal, state, county and municipal programs have emerged throughout the country to promote conservation through incentive and rebate offerings to reduce energy consumption, including free weatherization for low-income households. The 2011 federal tax credit is also helping cellulose insulation sales since homeowners may qualify for a tax credit of $500 or 10 percent of the cost.

Despite a national trend towards energy conservation, the recession has stagnated new construction and retrofits and impacted cellulose insulation. In 2006, the industry hit an all time high production high of 889,827 tons according to a CIMA survey of 21 member manufacturers. But 2009 production dropped to 490,513 tons. Yet, while production decreased 45 percent during that time, the use of recovered paper was down just 34 percent for the same period. Seventy-four percent of the recovered paper used by the industry in 2009 was post-consumer, and the percentage of recovered paper that was post-consumer has remained relatively stable at 72 percent in 2006, which actually increased to 73.9 percent in 2009.

Today, cellulose accounts for approximately 15 percent of the total insulation market, but architects, builders, homeowners and the green community are increasingly recognizing its environmental benefits. In manufacture, cellulose consumes less energy than any other type of insulation and is made almost entirely of recycled content – mostly old newsprint. In doing so, it diverts paper from landfill, conserves landfill capacity and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

According to CIMA, cellulose insulation requires less embodied energy than any other type of insulation. This includes the total energy required to transport raw materials, manufacture and distribute the product. Fiberglass has up to 10 times more embodied energy than cellulose, and foam products up to 64 times more.

Bill Turk, co-founder and CEO of Pest Control Insulations Systems, the developer of TAP brand pest-control cellulose insulation, discussed the company’s raw material supply; “Because TAP is manufactured to our specifications in 19 different locations throughout the country, the paper used in the product is sourced from many different locations. The paper used is typically a Number 9 grade news or ground wood product that each of our manufacturing partners purchases by the ton. The word on the street from our partners is that the paper market is tightening due to increased exports and less reclaimed paper available due to changing habits and use of electronic communication versus hard copies.”

From a competitive and environmental standpoint, cellulose offers advantages over other types of insulation such as fiberglass and spray foam polyurethane products. It’s usually much cheaper and contains fewer toxic chemicals. But cellulose is saddled with consumer misconceptions that it is old-fashioned, a fire hazard, that it retains moisture or attracts pests – all of which are inaccurate.

“The most common misunderstanding about cellulose insulation is that it creates a fire hazard or that it is flammable,” said Turk. “Nothing could be further from the truth, and there are numerous scientific tests and real-world experiments that confirm cellulose insulation actually makes a structure more fire resistant because it’s treated with a fire retardant. Another misconception is that cellulose promotes the growth of mold or mildew. This is also not true.”

In fact, cellulose insulation is one of the world’s greenest building products. It contains a minimum of 75 percent post-consumer recycled content and can contain upward of 90 percent post-consumer recycled newspaper. It has high R-values ranging from 3 to 3.7 and uses low volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), such as borates and ammonium sulfates, in its manufacture as fire-retardants and preservatives.

Although many brands of cellulose are chemically treated with some formulation of borates for fungal and/or fire resistance, there are only two products that are EPA labeled to offer pest control. One is made by InCide Technologies, Inc., the other by Pest Control Insulation Systems Inc.

Turk said that TAP insulation was introduced in 2001 after four years of testing in order to obtain a patent, an EPA label and registration in several states for building code compliance.

Without an EPA label, it is unclear whether an insulation product has any effect on pests. TAP is infused with a specific grind of boric acid that serves as the pest control agent. Insects do not eat the insulation, rather the boric acid attaches to their bodies as they crawl through the insulation. They ingest the acid when they groom themselves and die.

“A key benefit is that it works for the life of the structure because insects cannot build up a tolerance to boric acid. If properly installed and left undisturbed, the insulation never requires additional treatment. Insects are not repelled by borates, as they are unable to detect its presence. It also has about half the chemical loading compared to other pest control insulations,” Turk explained.

Like most all cellulose insulations, TAP is a loose-fill type that is most often blown under pressure into attics in new construction, or blown in on top of existing insulation in older buildings. In older buildings, holes are drilled in walls and the material is blown in under pressure to entirely fill the wall cavity.

“We’ve garnered a lot of positive attention from the green building community recently,” said Turk. “They like TAP since it is not only a green building product, but an innovative, proactive, green method of pest control as well. When viewed in the context of the entire product life-cycle, from production to use to disposal, few, if any, insulation products can match the environmental benefits. We are energy star labeled and qualify for multiple LEED credits. When properly installed, TAP meets building code requirements for thermal insulating materials evaluated by BOCA, CABO, ICBO, ICC-ES, SBCCI, and the Model Energy Code.”

Currently, the majority of TAP is being installed in residential retrofit applications due to various state regulations restricting those entities who may apply pesticides. However, PCIS, the company that markets and sells the product, is working within the regulations to create a new construction program that will likely come into effect in 2012.

In conclusion, Turk discussed the cost-effectiveness of cellulose insulation, as well as his opinion regarding the future of the cellulose market:

“From a product cost standpoint, foam is typically at least twice as expensive as TAP and generally about 20 percent more expensive than fiberglass. The future of cellulose insulation and TAP is bright. As builders and consumers become more aware and sensitive to the environmental aspects of the building products they use in homes, and buildings, along with the energy savings available by adding insulation on top of what already exists in a home, cellulose stands to gain significant market share since it is the ‘greenest’ of all the insulation products and out-performs traditional insulation in nearly every measurable category. With TAP insulation in a structure, it’s evolving from merely a thermal barrier to a thermal barrier plus a method of pest protection. It’s a two-in-one approach that offers tremendous value to homeowners.”

Most significantly, as the housing industry recovers and energy prices continue to rise, cellulose is better suited for use in homes, offices and other buildings providing comfort and cost savings than waiting for decomposition in landfills.