Why Plastic Foam Insulation Is Like a Twinkie: Lessons Green Builders Can Learn From Michael Pollan

Promo image. Twinkies

Twinkies/Promo image

Green building means different things to different people, but improved insulation and reducing energy use is certainly up at the top of everyone's list. Some of the most effective insulations are made from plastic foam, either in rigid boards or sprayed foams.

But there are concerns; Architect Ken Levenson recently wrote a controversial article, Why Foam Fails. Reason #1: Dangerous Toxic Ingredients, which was the start of a series that is very critical of foam insulation. I wrote about it in 'Does Foam Insulation Belong in Green Buildings? 13 Reasons It Probably Doesn't' and at the Green Building Advisor, the discussion almost turned into a flame war between those who think that plastic foam does a great job, and those who agree with Ken Levenson.

The more I read the discussion at Green Building Advisor, the more I thought that the arguments sounded familiar. At TreeHugger we have covered both green buildings and green food, and the arguments about the merits of plastic insulation vs natural products, what we put in our houses, are almost identical to those we have been having about what we put in out mouths.

Consider the Twinkie.

Consider the Twinkie. It sort of looks like polyurethane foam and lasts about as long. It's made from "37 or so ingredients, many of which are polysyllabic chemical compounds." The manufacturer of Twinkies recently went bankrupt for the second time, not because of unions or Wall Street shenanigans, but because their sales had been declining for years. Peoples' tastes changed and they simply were not buying as much of this kind of food. More people wanted real, more people wanted healthy, more people wanted something that may have been a little bit less efficient at delivering easy calories but on the whole did a better job of it.

Plastic foam is like that. It stops calories of heat dead in their tracks, it's a very efficient insulator. Like the Twinkie it is made from a pile of chemicals that nobody really wants to know about. But there is a perceived price in health that people do not necessarily want to pay any more.

If we are going to think of building materials like we do about food, We should learn from the master, Michael Pollan. I have taken his wonderful little book, Food Rules, and have reinterpreted his rules for the building industry, subsituting "build" for "eat" and "building products" for "food." A lot of them apply.

Green Building

Food Rules

Rule 2. Don't eat build with anything that your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food a building material.

People used to know how to build with materials that lasted hundreds of years. Terazzo instead of vinyl. Brick instead of vinyl. A whole world of materials instead of vinyl. It's true that they didn't pay a lot of attention to insulation, but when they did, there was cork and rock wool and cellulose even then.

3. Avoid food building products containing ingredients that no ordinary human being would keep in the pantry workshop.

Really, have you looked at Ken's list of chemicals that go into foam insulation? Sure, they have been part of a chemical reaction and are probably no longer as bad as they are on their own, but do you want them in your house?

6. Avoid food building products that contain more than five ingredients.

Here is a plea for simplicity. These become very complex substances that may be full of ingredients approved in North America but rejected in Europe, where the REACH program is much stricter than American controls. Who's right? Why are you willing to risk it?

7. Avoid food building products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce.

Same idea, keep it simple. You are a builder or a designer, not a chemist.

11 Avoid food building products you have seen advertised on television

..or the endless trade magazines and shows where Dow and all the other huge chemical companies that are conspiring in Washington to kill green building standards are marketing their stuff. We should be boycotting any member of the so-called American High Performance Buildings Coalition, not specifying their products. Their shenanigans in Congress are enough to knock them off any green builders' list of acceptable products.

14 Use food building products made from ingredients that you can picture in their raw state or growing in nature.

Pollan writes:

Read all the ingredients on a package of Twinkies or Pringles and imagine what those ingredients actually look like raw or in the places they grow; You can't do it. This rule will keep all kinds of chemicals and foodlike substances out of your diet.

This is probably why I like wood so much, a natural, renewable product.

The Pollanization of Green Building

I think we have to learn from what has happened in the food movement. That's the way people are going; they want natural, they want local, they want healthy and they reject manufactured chemical products. Twenty years ago every food manufacturer talked the way people are at Green Building Advisor: Transfats make food cheaper and better, High fructose corn syrup has all kinds of advantages. Now even the biggest companies run from these, the vinyls of the food industry.

We are never going to get rid of all these chemicals and plastics from green buildings, anymore than we are going to get rid of all additives from food. Some have very useful functions and some, like vitamins in our diet or plastic sheathing on electric wiring, are even good for us. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to minimize their use and where there are healthy alternatives, chose them instead. I suspect that pretty soon, that is what your clients will be demanding. I will call it Pollanization, and it's the next big thing in green building.