How to Choose Eco-Friendly Decking

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Tuohy and Home Depot
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Building a deck is a wonderful way to enjoy your outdoor space. If you are covering a water-thirsty grass lawn with a deck, you are already a step ahead in the green game. However, to keep up that eco-momentum, make sure to choose an environmentally friendly material when building your new deck.

According to energy-efficient experts Direct Energy, “Building with sustainable materials helps the earth because you’re not wasting resources. It also helps your budget because you can reduce long-term maintenance costs. By working with sustainable materials when building, you’re lowering the chance that your family and the earth are exposed to toxic products.”

As with many green choices, the “right” one is not always clear-cut. The most eco-friendly option for you will depend on a lot of factors, including your location, the climate you live in and your budget.

6 Environmental Considerations for Decking

When choosing the best green option for you, keep in mind the following factors. If you can achieve at least four out of the six, you can feel pretty good about your new deck:

  1. Local. The further your decking material has to be shipped, the greater the cost to the environment. In many cases, locally produced materials will outweigh most negatives.
  2. Manufactured Cleanly. Choose a material made without the use of any toxic chemicals and that doesn’t create any toxic by-products.
  3. Sustainable Future. Make sure the material is harvested responsibly and is not a finite resource.
  4. Green Maintenance. Check that you can maintain the material without the use of toxic chemicals.
  5. Longevity. Pick a material that will last as long as possible. Longevity is a key part of being green. The longer a product lasts, the less impact it has on the environment, no matter how much material or chemical was used in its initial manufacture.
  6. Recyclable. Choose a material that can be easily recycled and/or is made from recycled or reclaimed products.

Read on for a rundown of your decking material options and their green credentials.

Wooden Decking

The traditional option for a deck is wood, and while it’s fast being replaced in popularity by composite decking (see below), it is still a good one, especially if you live in an area with extra hot summers. The plastic in composite decking can mean the material becomes too hot to walk on. 

Wood is long-lasting and the most economical of decking materials. While it requires more regular maintenance, it trumps all other options in terms of longevity because it can be refinished year after year. All wood decking needs to be cleaned and resealed every year or two to maintain its original color and prevent splintering and warping. Some hardwoods, such as redwood and cedar, are naturally resistant to rot and insect damage, so don’t need to be treated with chemicals. Other softwoods, such as the popular southern yellow pine, must be pressure treated with chemicals to imbue them with similar properties.

If you opt for wood, your location will determine your most environmentally-friendly option. While Forestry Stewardship Council certified wood guarantees your product hasn’t been harvested from endangered rainforests, non-FSC certified wood grown locally could be the greener option when the cost to the environment of shipping is factored in. Below is a look at the best options based on your location.

  • Southwest/Rocky Mountain Region: Redwood, which grows extensively along the West Coast, is the strongest natural decking material available. It is resistant to rot, decay and termites, and the wood naturally fades to grey over time. (If you want to keep the color, you will need to stain it.) This is the best choice for those who live in California, Colorado, Utah, Nevada or Arizona, as it will be harvested in your region, meaning less energy expended in shipping.
  • Northwest: If you live in Washington, Oregon or Idaho, cedar is a good choice. It has similar properties to redwood, although it is not as strong, it is durable and naturally resistant to rot and insect damage.
  • East Coast: Southern yellow pine is a widely available softwood that is grown predominantly in the southeast. However, softwoods are not naturally resistant to rot or insects in the way hardwoods are, therefore they must be pressure treated (a process of forcing chemical preservatives deep into the wood). You also still need to stain or seal pressure treated wood to protect it from weathering, but it is generally the least expensive option. The toxic, arsenic-based chemical that was used in pressure-treated wood until 2003 has been replaced with copper-based alternatives that are not absorbed by the human body.

An alternative to pine is sustainably harvested ipe. This South American hardwood is dense and heavy, naturally resistant to moisture and bugs and has a fire rating similar to concrete. Be sure to choose FSC certified ipe however, as the irresponsible harvesting of this and other tropical hardwood options, including Cumaru and Tigerwood, is largely responsible for the deforestation of Amazon rainforests. Shipping is a major black mark, however, but that is somewhat offset by the longevity of the wood and the lack of chemicals needed to preserve it.

Another relatively new option in the wood realm is bamboo decking, which has comparable properties to hardwood without the disadvantages of slow growth cycles. However, to be durable enough for decking, bamboo needs to be “strand-woven,” which requires the use of toxic adhesives.

Composite and Plastic Alternatives

Composite (wood fiber and plastic) and plastic decking materials have become a very popular choice in recent years due to their ability to emulate the look of wood without the ongoing maintenance issues: they resist stains, cracks and warping, and insects are definitely not interested. Additionally, they can be made with recycled materials. Be a savvy consumer, however, and look for the highest recycled plastic content to ensure a green choice. The biggest ecological downside of composite and plastic decking is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to recycle responsibly, so you need to offset that by using largely recycled product in the first place.

While low-maintenance is the biggest selling point for plastic and composite decking, it does still need to be cleaned. A pressure washer is almost a requirement to ward off mold and stains, which are much harder to remove than in wood. Additionally, composite costs almost twice as much as wood and because it’s not as strong as wood, you may have to spend more money on supports during installation. However, Direct Energy notes that this a worthy trade-off: “While eco-friendly composite decks can be more expensive than wood, they are worth the price simply because you’re lowering the amount of forests being cut down for your backyard play area.”

Non-Wood Composites

Following the success of Trex, the leading wood/plastic composite decking manufacturer, numerous companies have sprung up that use different, eco-friendly materials for decking, including powdered paper sludge, dried rice hulls, and recycled carpet fiber. Nearly all of these require the use of polyethylene or plastic in their manufacture, but if the material is all recycled, then they are a good green option.

Aluminum Decking

If you don’t need or want a wood look for your deck, consider powder coated aluminum. Strong, fire, water and insect resistant, and recyclable, aluminum has many benefits. It is also lightweight and requires no maintenance. However, it is a very expensive option, and while it is a natural resource, extraction and manufacture of aluminum is energy-intensive and very negative environmentally. Unless you can find recycled aluminum, your deck will be contributing to a substantial release of greenhouse gases.

Whichever material you choose, the longer your deck lasts, the better it is for you and the environment. One of the key components to ensuring a long, happy life span for your deck is to keep it dry. All of the materials listed above (with the exception of aluminum) will suffer from long-term exposure to water. Limit that exposure as much as possible by ensuring your deck has proper drainage when installed, and consider an awning or cover for your deck area. Keeping the water off as much as possible will result in less maintenance, a longer life and a greener deck, no matter what it’s made of.

Jennifer Tuohy is an eco-conscious mom who writes about green DIY projects. Jennifer presents tips for knowing which decking materials are best for the environment. To see a selection of the composite deck options that she talks about in this article, visit The Home Depot. Read all of Jennifer’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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