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The Low-Down on Sustainable Decking Materials

Decking materials billed as green aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be. Here’s the lowdown on the most sustainable decking options.

| May/June 2012

  • EverGrain composite decking is made of recycled wood and plastic and offers a 25-year warranty.
    Photo Courtesy Tamko Building Products

Seven years ago I began building my dream house, intent on making it both low-maintenance and energy-efficient. I loved the idea of a large deck facing my expansive westward mountain views. However, having had wood decks on a previous house, I knew I didn’t want to spend half my summer weekends staining and waterproofing. I settled on composite decking made of recycled wood fiber and plastic, which I believed would cut down on maintenance and reduce my home’s impact on Mother Nature, as composite materials are said to last 20 years or more.

Little more than five years later, however, I found my composite deck disintegrating where it was exposed to sun and rain. I felt like I had been taken for a ride. My experience isn’t unique, unfortunately. Selecting sustainable decking materials that are durable and reliable can be difficult. “‘Green’ has such a large definition,” says Rick Goldstein, co-owner of MOSAIC Group Architects and Remodelers in Atlanta. “There are no perfect metrics. When it comes to decking, I don’t know of any products that are truly green—they just have green aspects.”

So how do you know which sustainable decking materials to choose? It can be a tricky process, so doing your homework is paramount. 

Wood Decking

Wood is strong, easy to work with, and can be painted or stained any color. But it can be difficult to discern which wood is sustainable. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certifies lumber that was sustainably harvested, but FSC-certified wood may not be the greenest option if it’s shipped from afar. If you must choose between FSC-certified lumber from South America or Asia and non-certified local wood, choose local, Goldstein recommends. Transportation emissions are a major contributor to greenhouse gases, and if you use a local harvester, it’s easier to track where the lumber came from and how it was harvested.



While there is no centralized resource for finding locally harvested lumber, a search for lumber companies and your city name should get you started. Look for companies that directly sell the products they harvest. You can search for local retailers of FSC-certified lumber at FSC’s website. When discussing options with companies, make sure to ask about durability and weather-resistance.

Brooks Utley, design expert for the OWN network’s “Home Made Simple,” says salvaged lumber can be an excellent decking option—he made his own deck out of salvaged lumber. Salvaged wood decking makes use of a material that would otherwise go to waste. However working with salvage can present challenges. If you can’t pick pieces yourself, you may get boards that are partially rotted or discolored. And because salvaged wood isn’t likely to be uniform, installation can be more difficult.  The best way to source salvaged lumber is to search online or to find local builders who are familiar with salvage. You can search for salvage yards at the Building Materials Reuse Association website. You can also order ready-to-install salvaged wood decking, but shipping the wood increases its environmental impact.



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