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Materials are natural resources that have been extracted, manufactured, and/or processed for human use. Proper selection and use of materials can contribute to a site’s ability to provide ecosystem services. A sustainable approach to material use in landscapes begins with an assessment of the existing site—both built and non-built features—and a design that seeks to incorporate and reuse as much of the existing site materials as practical.

Examples of Sustainable Practices

Use existing materials
Before purchasing new materials, look for structures, hardscape, infrastructure, and other landscape amenities that can be reused, including existing on-site elements or those salvaged from off-site. Reduced materials consumption, the preferred method of materials management, lessens the need for new materials while preventing the generation of waste.

Purchase local and sustainably-produced plants and materials
Research options for plants and materials before buying.  Select plants and products from companies that are striving to use sustainable practices, such as energy and water efficiency. For new materials, select local materials and those made with recycled content. For lumber, choose certified, sustainably harvested wood. By selecting materials that require reduced energy for production, transport, and operation, greenhouse gas emissions can be decreased.

The widespread use of materials with increased reflectivity can result in localized average air temperature decreases of up to 7.2 F.1

In 1996, construction and development in the U.S. generated almost 136 million tons of building-related waste.  Only 20 to 30 percent of that was recycled.2

In 2004, cement production created carbon dioxide emissions equal to emissions from 20 million cars in one year.3

Urban heat island effects can lead to increased air-conditioning costs, air pollution levels, and heat-related illness and mortality.4

Consider the full life cycle of materials
Consider the environmental and health effects of a product, from the raw material extraction phase all the way through the end of the product life.  Select products that are less damaging throughout their life cycle, especially those that can be recycled or deconstructed and reused rather than disposed of in a landfill.

Work towards zero net waste
During construction and demolition, look for materials that can be reused or recycled, both on-site and at other nearby sites.  Continue looking for options to reduce waste throughout the life of the site, by mulching and composting landscape trimmings and offering collection spots for recyclable materials and compostable food waste.

Reduce urban heat island effect
Use vegetation and reflective materials to reduce heat islands and minimize effects on microclimate and on human and wildlife habitat. Shade constructed surfaces with vegetation or other landscape features.  Replace constructed surfaces such as roofs, roads, and sidewalks with vegetated surfaces.

Reduce air pollution
To reduce harmful health effects associated with air pollution, select paints, sealants, adhesives, coatings, and other products used in site development that contain reduced amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs contribute to forming ground-level ozone, which is the primary component of smog.

[1] Taha, H. 1997. Urban climates and heat islands: albedo, evapotranspiration, and anthropogenic heat. Energy and Buildings, 25: p. 99-103.
[2] Franklin Associates.1998. Characterization of building-related construction and demolition debris in the United States. Prairie Village, KS.
[3] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2006. Sector Strategies Performance Report.
[4] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Heat Island Effect: Vegetation and Air Quality, http://www.epa.gov/heatisland/strategies/level3_vegairquality.html (accessed August 20, 2008)