What on Earth?

Mark L. Johnson / April 2019

On Feb. 25, 2019, TheGuardian.com posted the article, “Concrete: the most destructive material on Earth.” The report was part of “Guardian concrete week,” a news bundle “[celebrating] the aesthetic and social achievements of concrete, while investigating its innumerable harms.”
“In the time it takes you to read this sentence,” Guardian says, “the global building industry will have poured more than 19,000 bathtubs of concrete.”
“If the cement industry were a country,” the newspaper says, “it would be the third largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world with up to 2.8 [billion metric tons], surpassed only by China and the United States.”
Urban sprawl isn’t just abundant. It’s a threat to biodiversity. “We may have already passed the point where concrete outweighs the combined carbon mass of every tree, bush and shrub on the planet,” says Guardian, referencing the Vox article, “All life on Earth, in one staggering chart.” “Concrete is,” Guardian says, “tipping us into climate catastrophe.”
I was shocked after reading these articles. But, they got me thinking: How does our industry stack up against concrete? How friendly to Earth is cold-formed steel? Gypsum wallboard? Joint compound?

Our Industry’s Impact
No surprise. It turns out, wall and ceiling materials are quite sustainable.
Cold-formed steel. “Steel is recycled more than paper, plastic, glass, copper, lead and aluminum combined,” says Steel Framing Industry Association. SFIA says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has documented that the North American Steel industry has reduced its greenhouse gases by 47 percent in recent years.
In fact, the North American steel industry recycles up to 80 million tons of steel every year, according to BuildSteel.org. Steel has an 88 percent recycle rate, making it Earth’s most recycled material. BuildSteel.org says cold-formed steel framing contains at least 25 percent recycled steel. The steel from just six scrapped automobiles, for example, can be recycled as CFS studs to build a 2,000-square-foot house.
Gypsum wallboard. Gypsum is also environmentally sustainable. It can be recycled as a soil conditioner, as an additive to concrete mixes and in other ways. Gypsum can even be re-introduced into the production stream, the Gypsum Association says.
Even the paper used to make wallboard is recycled. This has been done for more than 50 years, according to the Gypsum Association. Annually, the gypsum industry uses more than 40 million cubic yards of paper material destined for landfills—“enough trash,” says the Gypsum Association, “to fill more than 10,000 standard railroad cars.”
And today, the industry has less reason to mine calcium sulfate. That’s because many power plants scrub their sulfur dioxide emissions using flue gas desulfurization. As they burn coal, they produce synthetic calcium sulfate. Wallboard manufacturers use this synthetic calcium, which is chemically identical to natural gypsum. In 2017, synthetic ore was used in about half (47 percent) of all U.S. gypsum panels, the Gypsum Association says.
The industry’s innovations go on and on. Take glass mat–faced gypsum board. It was first introduced in the late 1980s, but in recent years manufacturers have produced formulations with integrated biocides. Wallboard keeps getting more and more sustainable.
Joint compound. Today’s joint compounds are super lightweight and low dust emitters. The decreased dust is good news for Earth, workers and OSHA, the latter of which wants to see—and has issued new requirements for—less silica dust in the air.
Indeed, lighter joint compounds have revolutionized our work. One manufacturer says the average wall assembly construction time has dropped by 25 percent over the past 10 years due to these lightweight innovations.

Let’s Do More
We should be proud as an industry. And we should keep working together with one another and with other industries like concrete.
The point of my observation here is not to be critical of the concrete industry. What I read at TheGuardian.com is what I read. But I sure would like to see our world do better. So as an industry, let’s not rest on our laurels. While we as a wall and ceiling industry are pulling our weight, let’s try to do more to keep planet Earth alive and kicking. It’s our home.

Mark L. Johnson, an industry writer who is fond of our planet, can be reached via markjohnsoncommunications.com.