From waste to warmth
There are two new bins behind a church in our town, big green bins with black plastic tops. They sort of cement the church as one of our main recycling centers.
We already take old clothes, shoes and books to the church’s thrift store or the clothing collection bin, and bring bottles to the bottle collection bin behind the thrift shore. Now we can bring loose paper and box board too.
The new bins are from Green Fiber, a North Carolina company that recycles paper — newspaper, cardboard, junk mail, office paper — and makes it into insulation. Our town already collects newspaper and corrugated cardboard, but the new bin takes a lot more, including the endless stack of school worksheets that we save for fire starter. Although we’re kidding ourselves if we think we could ever start enough fires to significantly reduce the worksheet stack. Now we can just dump it in the bin, and know it will be used.
It seems like a good thing all around. We’ve got a place for all that paper. The insulation made from it will take lots of paper out of the waste stream (Green Fiber says 3 million tons since its founding 12 years ago) and reduce energy usage in homes and businesses where it is installed. And the church is making some money off the process as well.
The cellulose insulation made from the paper we’re dumping in the bin is most typically used as attic insulation — that fluffy gray stuff often called loose fill.
So what’s the difference between a cellulose-based insulation product like Green Fiber’s and a fiberglass insulation, such as Owens Corning’s product?
Both are made of recycled materials, although cellulose uses more post-consumer materials than fiberglass. Both are relatively inexpensive. Cellulose insulation needs to be blown in, rather than coming in rolled-up bats, like the pink stuff. But you can rent a blower and the blown-in insulation often offers better air seals than the bats, especially the self-installed bats that are sometimes poorly cut and poorly fitted. This according to Green Building Advisor (www.greenbuildingadvisor.com).
Cellulose insulation is treated to be fire-retardant, generally with boric acid and borax. Fiberglass doesn’t burn, although it does melt and the paper that makes it into batting will burn.
Cellulose insulation has a higher R-value (a measure of air blocking) than fiberglass, but it also settles more, which can reduce the R-value over time. But then I guess you just blow more in.
The concept of insulation is pretty simple: Anything you can do to block air flow will keep the heat in and the cold out.
Old houses often had newspaper stuffed into their walls as a rudimentary insulation. Or anything else — straw, horse hair, sheep’s wool — whatever would stop air from moving from the outside to the inside. In the fall, people would rake piles of leaves around the foundation of their homes, or stack bales of straw, to block cold air. Wool blankets or tapestries would be hung inside for the same reason.
Our old house was built in stages, from a variety of found materials, and uses a strange combination of insulation techniques including, I’m afraid, the old concept that “dead air space” is as good as insulation. I can tell you it is not.
But whether cellulose is better or worse than fiberglass, I cannot say. Maybe it makes sense for attics while fiberglass makes more sense for walls.
What does make sense to me is making insulation out of the paper, finding a new use for a waste product and keeping it out of landfills.
So we have a new box of recyclables on the back porch for all the paper our town recycling program can’t take. And a new reason to use the church as a recycling center.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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