Architecture has clear definitions of recyclability: to build using materials either with a percentage of recycled content or with the ability to be recycled in the future. The trick is to ensure that the materials are truly recycled to the percentage stated and on the backside, that they actually get recycled.
Recyclability of acoustics for architecture and interiors can mean many things:
- To build things with recycled materials
- Recycling the materials when the building or products are demolished or retired
- Longevity, or to re-use products and devices repeatedly, instead of throwing them away when done
- Re-using real estate spaces, best utilizing their bespoke design and construction
Recyclability of Architecture, Interiors and Construction
By volume, the most widely used acoustic material is traditional fiberglass or molten rock materials. Once retired or demolished, these materials are nearly 100-percent disposed of as trash and put into landfills. Despite their obvious recyclability, there is no mechanism or infrastructure to process and reuse these materials. Consequently, none of them are recycled post-use nor made into new products.
While some traditional glass-based materials such as Thermafiber are certified to be 70 percent made from recycled glass bottles, it doesn’t directly address finding a way to recycle the fiberglass material at the end of its lifespan.
Ultratouch denim insulation has achieved popularity due to its soft, non-abrasive handling, acoustic absorption and thermal properties. It’s made from recycled denim (blue jeans) and woven using a proprietary process into insulation batting. The company also works with the Blue Jeans Go Green charity which donates the end product to organizations like Habitat for Humanity after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
Yet neither material is without its pros and cons. While the fiberglass and glass-based insulations used in the majority of traditional acoustics are itchy, unrecyclable, bad for landfills and widely believed to be carcinogenic, they also are more inert and less prone to mold retention and related issues. On the other hand, cotton-based materials are carcinogen-free, soft to the touch and easy to handle with similar or higher acoustical performance.
Most traditional wood-based acoustic products are all recyclable, as long as they are more wood than binder or resin, and not finished with paint or urethane. The next generation quantum acoustic devices are 100-percent recyclable as they are all made with recyclable materials or materials already made with high percentages of recycled content.
Longevity and Re-Usability of Products
One point is to create a product or device which lasts the test of time. In other words, if short-term products only last five years and are tossed into landfills for 20 generations over and over again while long term products are still in use 100 years later, perhaps it’s better to design it for longevity in the first place. Recyclability requires future vision, so this should start in the design phase.
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Re-usability is the related key factor. It’s worth reusing the acoustic devices both as a cost savings as well as a green/recycling perspective. Let’s say you have a conference room with acoustic devices or a studio with quantum devices, which are very effective yet made with specific colors and sizes for your space. If you were to move on from that space, or change businesses, instead of throwing those devices away, it would be wiser to use them again elsewhere. They could be given a facelift with new textile or colors and repurposed.
The new generation of acoustic devices are more valuable and longer lasting, therefore more viable as a hand me down or resell. Most people don’t want a pile of dusty old fiberglass or old grey foam, but a thin, lightweight device, beautifully wrapped in elegant textile has value and function.
Re-Using Spaces with Acoustic Products
In this day and age, we see fewer bricks-and-mortar studios built from scratch. Not a room in a house, a spare office or a garage, but a freestanding studio designed and built from ground up specifically for recording. Typically, studios of this caliber are laborious, expensive and take a great deal of time to design and build. Recently, I witnessed several of these grand studios being used as an office spaces, filled with desks, boxes and extra furniture. From the singular perspective of recyclability, the best re-use of these spaces would be as a mixing and recording audio production suites. They would benefit from all the highly specialized acoustical characteristics including the high levels of isolation from the outside world.
The moral is that the recyclability of acoustics is at the mercy of the exact same things that all recycling is: human nature and convenience. If we make it our mission to recycle anything, it will happen. Every ounce of the 2.5 billion pounds of fiberglass made last year in the U.S. alone could get recycled and turned into new fiberglass. Every sliver of wood used in building old school diffusors or new technology quantum devices could be ground into fibers and recreated as new acoustic products.
The Recyclability of Acoustics is Challenging
Recyclability of acoustics is a complex challenge. It encompasses traditional architectural paradigms of materials recycling, re-usability of products and reuse of purpose-built studios and acoustic production spaces.
If we all commit to a true circle of recyclability regardless of effort, costs or infrastructure, then someday we will all enjoy the benefits of a better, cleaner environment with fewer landfills, less waste and cleaner air. If the interiors can do it, it’s well within our reach to accomplish it as well.
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