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New Border Projects Encourage Wider Use of Sustainable Building Materials

Barbara Zandoval

The federal government has been clear on its desire to make sustainability a key part of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan, and one way they aim to do that is through cleaner construction methods. The administration took steps toward that goal with its recent announcement that the U.S. government will require sustainable building materials on major construction projects along the United States border.

Photo Courtesy CDC

This method will also be implemented as part of a plan to modernize and expand 26 border crossings in the United States, spanning California to Texas along the southern border and Alaska to Maine along the northern border. The projects are designed to ease the movement of goods and travelers – something that has long been a priority.

What’s different this time around is that the projects must include sustainable building materials. One hope is that by requiring sustainable materials for federal government work, they will see an uptick in demand elsewhere in the construction industry.

Considering the industry’s huge environmental impact, that would be a welcome development.

According to data published by the World Economic Forum, global construction accounts for 38% of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. These emissions need to be cut in half by 2030 and reduced to zero by 2050 to achieve the 2015 Paris Agreement goal.

Among building materials, cement – a key ingredient in concrete – has a particularly big impact, accounting for an estimated 8% of all global emissions. Globally, about 30 billion tons of concrete are used annually, three times as much as four decades ago on a per-capita basis. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the U.S. construction industry accounts for 160 million tons of non-industrial waste generation a year or about one-quarter of the total.

The federal government aims to help address the problem by committing $3.4 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to eco-friendly border projects. The plan will upgrade 26 landlocked ports of entry, which are used by 200,000 passenger vehicles and commercial trucks daily. The main priority is to add travel lanes and new facilities built specifically for commercial traffic.

The work will be overseen by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), which aims to implement new building and road materials standards. The standards will likely include wider use of recycled concrete and low embodied-carbon concrete and asphalt. Products used in the projects might also require environmental product declarations, which are used to track the carbon emissions from production through use.

The border projects are part of a larger effort by the White House to encourage sustainable building materials in federal projects. As part of the initiative, a Buy Clean Task Force was recently established to promote lower-carbon materials in building projects funded by the infrastructure bill.

“The president wants to use the power of the purse to incentivize good choices,” said White House infrastructure coordinator Mitch Landrieu.

The U.S. government certainly has a lot of power in its purse. According to the GSA, it is the world’s biggest buyer of goods and services, with an annual purchasing power of more than $650 billion.

Photo Courtesy Levi Meir Clancy

Along with promoting clean building materials, the Buy Clean Task Force will identify pollutants to target when considering federal government purchases. The task force also aims to increase transparency by helping materials producers reduce emissions and better report them. 

Task force members will come from various federal agencies, including the Departments of Defense, Energy and Transportation, the EPA, the GSA, and the White House Office of Management and Budget.In terms of sustainable building materials for the general population, the Fox Construction Pros website recommends using composite roofing shingles instead of asphalt shingles. Other sustainable building materials include smart glass windows; bamboo floors; insulated concrete framing; solar panels, hemp insulation; cork insulation; upcycled plastic; and recycled steel rods.

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