The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Decking Materials

A deck is more than just an appendage on a house. A deck has the power to blur the barrier between indoor and outdoor living, helping us connect with nature. There are plenty of sustainable decking materials out there, starting with classic wood and the plethora of new composite decking materials available. Many of these green options incorporate recycled substances that would otherwise have ended up in the landfill.

Choosing Sustainable Decking Materials

Of course, not all decks are created equal. You must consider several factors in order to balance sustainability. First is aesthetics, which makes a lot of homeowners reluctant to accept anything that’s not pure wood. Others prefer composites and the design options they offer. Then there’s durability and climate to factor in. Do you live in a wet or coastal region? Then it’s critical you choose a rot-resistant material.

Finally, there’s upkeep and cost. How much are you willing to spend for your deck? Are you willing to maintain your decks, or would you prefer to pay more up front for a low-maintenance material? Read on to find out some guidelines regarding the best sustainable decking materials on the market.

Natural Wood Decks

First in our list and first on many homeowners’ list, natural wood has plenty of advantages over other decking materials. Not only is wood nontoxic but also extremely strong for its weight. It is easy to work with and makes for a beautiful finished deck. Wood is also a renewable resource, which can make for a green product in the right conditions. If wood is your choice, make sure you use only wood that has been procured with limited fossil-fuel inputs from a sustainably managed forest. Wood is also relatively easy to reuse in future projects, should you ever want to upgrade your deck to another sustainable material.

Unfortunately, wood’s advantages are also the source of its problems. Your beautiful deck’s inclination is to return in the soil, and insects, the weather, bacteria and mold are helping it do exactly that. However, choosing wood that is naturally resistant to rot and insects can delay the effect. Native cedar and redwood are two of your best options, as well as imported tropical hardwoods such as teak and ipe.

The famed rot-resistance of redwood is significantly greater in lumber made from old-growth trees. However, this wood is now largely unavailable, except as reclaimed wood. If recycled cedar or redwood is available in your area, it is worth investing in it. This way, you will conserve natural resources. If you cannot find old redwood, seek out sustainably harvested redwood (wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Composite Decking

Composite decking products blend waste recycled plastics and wood fiber. Manufacturers make wood-like boards by adding in fiberglass, waxes, and preservatives. While requiring little maintenance, some composite decking can last up to 20 years. However, this product does weather, and experiencing warping is very common. Composite lumber looks and feels very similar to wood, has some of its strength, and it uses waste products that might otherwise rot in landfills.

In terms of sustainability, the biggest objection to using composite decking is the difficulty in disposal. Even though it lasts a long time, the biological components (wood and other cellulose) and “technical” components (plastics, waxes, fiberglass) are blended together, making it difficult to recycle once it reaches the end of its.

Treated Lumber

Natural rot-resistant wood is great to work with, but this type of wood has become increasingly expensive over the past few years. Therefore, homeowners were forced to search for more cost effective alternatives, such as less rot-resistant, cheaper softwoods. Treated with chemicals to inhibit decay, these are a popular substitute, especially in areas lacking cedar and redwood forests. The depth of the treatment gives the degree of the wood’s rot-resistance. Wood that is in contact with damp soil requires the deepest treatment. Similar to natural wood, treated decking can be finished with stains and paints to retain all the strength of natural wood.

Older, more toxic treatments are started to be replaced by slightly less poisonous options, including amine copper quat (ACQ) and copper azone (CA) for residential use. However, there are downsides too, given that ACQ- and CA-treated wood cannot be recycled or burnt. Far from benign, it’s toxic to produce, work with, and dispose of. Borate is currently the best alternative wood preservative. It’s water-soluble, which means you cannot use it in ground-contact contexts, but it is fairly non-toxic and inert.

HDPE Plastic Decking

Do you know what lumber made from High Density Polyethylene resin usually contains? Waste plastic, making it a surprising green alternative for your decking situation. Just like composite lumber, you can work it with wood tools, and is available in a wide range of textures and colors. However, seeing that plastic lumber does not possess the strength of wood, manufacturers recommend it for low-load structural applications. It is intended for tables, benches, or planks on well-supported walkways, but not for primary structural load-bearing elements, including posts, joists, and beams.

Plastic lumber varies in the content of post-consumer waste, so you should be looking for products that contain at least 50% post-consumer waste plastic. As we improve the way we design our living spaces, HDPE plastic decking could become more of a suitable option that it is today. Given that it contains a lot of recycled materials, it is a relatively cheap material to purchase.

Aluminum Decking

Surprisingly, aluminum is also a sustainable choice for your decking needs. Made from recycled products, aluminum is rather low-maintenance, and can be easily recycled itself. At the same time, decks made of aluminum can borrow the look of natural wood. It is worth noting that deck boards provide tight interlocking, creating a water-resistant barrier. Due to its heat dispersing capability, aluminum will also stay cool to the touch, even if your deck is under direct sunlight. You won’t need any coatings or sealants and the deck might have a lifetime warranty.

Sealants and Preservatives

If you have already finished your wood deck project, then finding a green way to preserve your brand new deck should be your top priority. It’s a lot easier to find a natural stain or finish now that in was a couple of years ago, but their cost is still rather high. For a less expensive option, look for low-VOC and low-toxic finishes.

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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