The Green Bean: Soybeans in Sustainable Building
Soy, that staple of a healthy diet, is also turning out to be the shining star of sustainable building
Soy isn't just for insulation. There are plenty of other new bean-based products gobbling up space on the shelves of your local green-build depot.
The Soy-Built House
Soy isn't just for insulation. There are plenty of other new bean-based products gobbling up space on the shelves of your local green-build depot. Here are a few of our favorites.
PLYWOOD > has traded adhesives packed with formaldehyde—a known carcinogen—for soy versions in its plywood and particleboard panels.
CARPET > now offers EnviroCel soy-based polyurethane backings on more than 20 styles of its eco-friendly natural wool carpets. for dealers.
PAINTS, SEALERS, AND Strippers > uses soy-based resin in its no-VOC paints. uses soybean oil as a solvent in its water repellent and wood sealer, while uses the same eco-safe solvent in its Soy-Gel paint remover.
COUNTERTOPS > colorful new countertop materials are made with recycled newspaper bound together by soy-based resins.
LUBRICANTS > new BPL oil is a biodegradable, soy-based substitute for all-purpose penetrating lubes made with petroleum, such as WD-40.
Whenever something new takes hold in the green building world, Paul Novack is one of the first to know about it. As an environmental product specialist with the Brooklyn, New York-based Green Depot—basically, a home center for eco-geeks—he's witnessed firsthand the rise of low-VOC paints, sustainably harvested wood, and recycled glass tile.
But what's taking up a surprising amount of shelf space these days is something you're more likely to find in an Asian market or health-food store. “I'm noticing a lot of new soybean-based products coming on the market,” Novack says. He cites the emergence of everything from soy carpet backing, sofa cushions, and insulation to lubricants, paints, stains, and strippers—not to mention several new plywood and particleboard products made with low-VOC, soy-based adhesives.
Using soybeans for non-tofu-related purposes isn't a new concept. Henry Ford was widely known as a soybean fanatic in the 1930s when, in his efforts to meld America's agricultural and manufacturing industries, he designed an entire car made with soy-based plastic panels. Soy adhesives were also commonly used in paints, and as a binder in plywood until cheaper (and better performing) petrochemical-based versions stole the show.
But this new crop of soy building products not only perform better than their predecessors, they're poised to give the petrochemical-based competition a run for its money. “Advances in technology are allowing us to revisit these products, improve them, and find better ways to use them,” says Jamie Butts, of the Ohio Soybean Council. Novack points to a soy-based, WD-40-type lubricant as an example of the industry's progress. “Not only is it sustainable,” he says, “the stuff washes off of your hands a heck of a lot easier than traditional lubricants do.”
Using soybean oil instead of the usual black gold is a particularly attractive option for building product manufacturers and homeowners looking to reduce their reliance on non-renewable resources. The beans' high oil content—18 percent, more than any other legume except peanuts—means you can get a lot of mileage out of a crop (the hulls are primarily used for edibles like tofu and tempe, and as animal feed). And they're plentiful: Grown in 26 states, soybeans are America's No 2 crop after corn, making them as abundant in these parts as oil is in Saudi Arabia.
To maximize the industrial potential, the United Soybean Board, an organization made up of U.S. growers, is pumping millions of dollars into research and development. More than 600,000 growers contribute a small percentage from the sale of each bushel to fund the board's efforts. And manufacturers are taking notice. “A lot of companies have been working with soybeans for quite a long time, and there are some good products out there. But we've definitely seen a heightened awareness among different companies that are taking the green initiative,” says Darren Jarboe, with the Center for Crops Utilization and Research at Iowa State University. Some of those companies include Green Planet Paints, which is using soybean oil as a substitute for solvents in its no-VOC paints; SoyGuard, which is doing the same with water repellents and wood sealers; and Environ Biocomposites, whose colorful paneling and countertop materials are made with recycled newspapers bound together by soy-based resins. And Columbia Forest Products recently announced that it's doing away with formaldehyde-based adhesives all together in exchange for soy-based versions in all of its plywood paneling products.
As they hit the market, many of these new products are still more expensive than those made with petrochemicals. Butts attributes that to research and development costs, and the rising price of soybean bushels in light of increased demand by the biofuels market, which uses refined soybean oil, as well as other vegetable oils, to create alternative fuel products. Ironically, it can also be blamed on escalating oil prices, which affect the cost of manufacturing and shipping these sustainable products.
Still, as the market grows, prices will drop, and it's likely Novack will continue to clear more shelf space for soy products in the years ahead. Who knows? Before long, you might be able to grow a new house instead of building one.