1st Dec 2023 -

Sustainability continues to be a key consideration across building and construction. One area where more sustainable practices make an impact is insulation materials. Traditional foam insulation products like polystyrene often have high embodied energy and carbon footprints from their manufacturing process. However, new advances in foam technology are providing greener options, allowing you to reduce environmental impacts without sacrificing performance.

This article explores sustainability with foam insulation materials and how new solutions offer similar insulation properties with enhanced environmental properties. With smart choices, foam insulation no longer needs to be at odds with sustainability goals. The latest innovations allow construction to be better insulated and more eco-friendly.

How much environmental damage can traditional insulation cause?

When exploring sustainability, foam products demonstrate clear advantages over many traditional options like fibreglass, cellulose and mineral wool. Although prevalent, these conventional insulations have greater environmental footprints in areas from carbon emissions to waste and durability.

In contrast, foam insulation offers improved sustainability in the following aspects.

Higher embodied carbon

Fibreglass production in particular requires high temperatures and energy inputs for melting glass. Foam insulation can be produced using less energy and denser packaging. Also, when you install a rigid foam insulation board, it requires minimal structural framing compared with batt insulation.

The foam provides insulation and a suitable substrate for exterior finishes. Using foam insulation minimises wood and steel framing requirements, conserving these construction resources.

Contains formaldehyde

The binders used in certain fibreglass batts and mineral wool products off-gas formaldehyde over time. This impacts indoor air quality. In contrast, rigid and spray foam options utilise formaldehyde-free adhesives. Using formaldehyde-free, green foam boards creates a healthier environment.

Less recycled content

Most standard insulations contain little to no recycled materials currently. Polyisocyanurate (PIR) and polyurethane foam boards incorporate 10-40% recycled plastic content from waste sources.

Manufacturers recycle plastic bottles, containers, and even old foam sheet scraps for new insulation. Using recycled plastics reduces landfill waste and the need to manufacture new petrochemical-based materials.

Lower efficiency

To achieve R-20 wall insulation, fibreglass batts must be around 6 inches thick. Rigid foam boards provide the same thermal resistance in only 1-2 inches of thickness. As a result, this difference reduces material demands.

The combination of high insulating R-value per inch, minimal thermal bridging, and integral air sealing makes foam insulation ideal for energy efficiency. Homes and buildings insulated with rigid foam boards or spray foam often require dramatically less energy for heating and cooling. 

More construction waste

Loose-fill cellulose and rolled fibreglass generate significant scraps when cut to fit building cavities. Rigid insulation foam panel off-cuts are minimal to none and less waste benefits sustainability. It provides a high R-value per inch compared to conventional insulation like fibreglass batts.

PIR rigid boards offer R-6 per inch and closed-cell spray foam provides R-5.5 to R-6.5 per inch. This high insulating value means significantly less material is required to achieve the desired energy code R-values for a cavity wall or roof. 

Air infiltration

The porous nature of blown-in and batt insulations allows airflow through walls and attics. Closed-cell foams completely block air movement for better efficiency. Expanding foam filler tightly attaches to surfaces to form a solid barrier against air infiltration and exfiltration. Preventing uncontrolled air leaks makes the building more airtight and energy-efficient. This air-sealing ability helps reduce costs for heating and cooling as less-conditioned air escapes the building.

Settling and compaction

Unprotected, blown-in cellulose and fibreglass settle over time, losing R-value. Long-term, rigid boards and spray foam maintain consistent thermal performance. 

Durability problems

Cellulosic and fibreglass insulations are prone to moisture damage, mould growth, and faster breakdown versus moisture-resistant foam options.

How to choose sustainable foam insulation

When it comes to selecting sustainable foam insulation materials, the ideal product depends on specific requirements. By evaluating insulation options for common building applications, you can identify high-performing, eco-friendly solutions. From residential retrofits to commercial roofing, here are some project-specific pointers. 

Residential new construction

Seek rigid polyiso boards made with 10-15% recycled plastic to reduce landfill waste. Also, pick boards are blown with eco-friendly hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and achieve R-6 per inch to minimise thickness. This conserves raw materials and lowers environmental impacts.

Interior acoustic control

Whether it is for windows, floors or walls, look for open-cell spray foam products certified for low volatile organic compounds (VOC) emissions to prevent off-gassing issues. As a result, this protects the air quality for occupants.

HVAC duct insulation

Be sure to choose formaldehyde-free, foil-faced polyiso laminate boards. It helps to maintain good indoor air quality with low VOC emissions. Also, this prevents off-gassing and creates a healthier interior space.

Exterior wall renovation

Select graphite-enhanced polyiso rigid foam to provide R-5 per inch thickness. As a result, this allows the use of less material for the required insulation levels, decreasing the environmental footprint.

Interior basement insulation

Specify closed-cell spray foams with 25% soy-based polyols for reduced fossil fuel dependence and related emissions. Attempt to target 40-60% recycled plastic content for less plastic waste. This increases the use of renewables and recycled materials.

Cold climate foundations

Use extruded polystyrene boards with advanced hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) blowing agents. During the selection process, specify CO2-derived polymers to offset carbon emissions from production. Overall, this reduces greenhouse gas impacts.

Steel stud wall assemblies

Choose polyiso foam sheathing with rigid facers made from 60-80% recycled cardboard or similar waste sources. As a result, utilising recyclable materials diverts them from landfills.

Radiant floor heating

Select rigid floor foam insulation panel options with high compressive strength, R-5 per inch, and take-back initiatives for recycling end-of-life boards. This optimises efficiency, minimises materials, and allows foam recycling.

Can you maintain sustainable foam insulation?

Yes. With minor maintenance to uphold its sustainable status, foam insulation can deliver many years of excellent performance. On average, the lifespan of rigid foam boards is between 20-30 years. Open-cell spray foam can last around 20-25 years, and closed-cell spray foam can reach over 50 years. Below are some key maintenance tips to action.

  • Avoid unnecessary exposure: Limit removing or disturbing installed foam insulation as much as possible to maximise its useful life. Only expose areas that require access.
  • Seal any penetrations: If foam board or spray foam insulation needs to be cut or drilled for any reason, be sure to use foam sealant around pipes or wires that penetrate it. Use spray foam or an appropriate caulk gun to maintain air sealing and insulation value.
  • Repair minor damage: Small gaps, cracks or punctures in foam insulation can be sealed using spray foam. Larger areas such as foam loft insulation may require cutting replacement rigid boards to fit.
  • Inspect regularly: Visually examine foam insulation, especially exterior layers, for any deterioration annually. It is recommended a visual inspection should be carried out at least once a year. Check for gaps, cracks, and moisture accumulation and make repairs quickly.
  • Consider recoating spray foam: Re-applying a fresh coat of spray foam can replenish aged spray foam insulation that has degraded slightly over time. Depending on its use and exposure, recoating spray foam should be performed every 5-10 years. 
  • Control moisture: Prevent excess moisture which can reduce R-value or cause mold growth. Ensure proper ventilation, deal with leaks promptly, and avoid foam insulation contact with damp surfaces.
  • Maintain exterior finish: Make sure to keep exterior claddings in good condition. To do this, shield foam insulation from UV, weathering, wind damage and other degradation factors.

What is the future of sustainability in foam insulation?

The sustainability of foam insulation stands to improve significantly in the future thanks to ongoing innovation. From increasing recycled content to novel bio-materials, manufacturers have identified key areas to enhance environmental benefits.

1. Increased recycled content

It is predicted that recycled plastic content in foam insulation could reach over 60% by 2030. This is through advanced chemical recycling technologies that can process hard-to-recycle plastic waste into usable insulation resins. The desired result is to significantly reduce the amount of plastic going into landfills.

2. Novel bio-based materials

Widespread use of plant-derived oils and agricultural fibres could make foam insulation boards and spray foam up to 30% bio-based within 10 years. Replacing petrochemicals with renewable materials will reduce fossil fuel usage.

3. Improved efficiency and thinner applications

With forecasted improvements through advanced foaming agents and production techniques, foam insulation R-values could increase by up to 15% in the next decade. This would allow foam thickness to be reduced by 15% while maintaining equivalent thermal resistance. Using less material per installation lowers environmental impacts.

4. Greener application practices

Solar electric spray rigs and low-global warming potential (GWP) spray techniques could be used in over half of all spray foam applications by 2030. This transitions away from diesel-powered equipment and high GWP blowing agents for more sustainable spray foam insulation.

5. Closed-loop recycling

If robust foam insulation recycling networks are established, it is estimated up to 25% of foam waste could be recycled into new insulation products by 2035. This would create a circular production system reducing waste.

6. Smart foam insulation

Integration of phase change materials (PCMs) such as polyethylene for thermal energy storage could emerge in select foam insulation products over the next 10-15 years. As a result, this would enhance energy conservation and sustainability.

Sustainable foam insulation delivered across the UK

At Building Materials Nationwide, we offer a wide selection of sustainable foam insulation products to help you construct high-performing, eco-friendly projects. Our range includes foam pipe insulation, foam cavity wall insulation, and accessories such as insulation tape. As a UK-wide supplier, we make it easy for you to buy the sustainable insulation you need for any size job.

Plus, our trade accounts provide benefits like competitive trade pricing, quick delivery options, and access to trade account managers. We help with everything from product selection to logistics so you can focus on your projects. Let us know about your specific insulation requirements and we will recommend the ideal products. Contact us today to open your trade account or sign up online to get started.

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