There are a couple of terms in use now that try to look at the entire life of a product, not just the product itself. These terms often start with “Cradle to ..."
The more familiar version is probably “Cradle to Grave,” where the analysis starts with the raw material and the basic “birth” of the product and takes it through its final disposal. This analysis can be very useful when considering the real environmental cost of a product. It looks beyond just the raw material and asks deeper questions. For example, does it require a lot of energy to create it? Can you use it for a long time with minimal maintenance? Does it become hazardous material in a landfill?
It is a bit more challenging in construction—it is something of the ultimate in recycling.
A new concept that goes one step further is called “Cradle to Cradle.” More than an analysis, it is an attempt to try to put production into a circular condition, where the “death” of the last item serves as the starting point of the next. It is easier to think of in terms of farming, where you take your leftovers and compost them into fertilizer to start the food growth over again. It is a bit more challenging in construction—it is something of the ultimate in recycling.
One of the greater goals of a Cradle to Cradle program would be to avoid “downcycling,” where the recycled content is utilized in creating something that is considered a lower value item. An example would be taking high-end wood flooring and turning it into chips for MDF or fuel pellets. The recovery is good, but of lesser value. On the other hand, turning whiskey barrels or old barn siding into high-end flooring might be a form of upcycling, making a more valuable product.
LEED looks favorably on “cradle” products, and you can find different programs that will certify products or processes for a form of “Cradle to…” It is not huge in our industry yet, but it’s becoming better known, particularly in other floor coverings—carpet and vinyl are more widely available in some form of “cradle” program. But there is a bit of wood out there with it and it’s something to look into as a concept, if not an actual certification. Every little bit helps!