5 Types of Green Insulation That Reduce Utility Costs and Are Gentler for the Planet

Courtesy WellHome Blog

If you want to make an investment with a big eco-impact, upgrade the insulation in your home. It’s one of the best ways to get the biggest green bang for your buck. We’ve gathered five of the most interesting and eco-friendly insulation options on the market today, all of which will reduce your monthly utility costs for heating and cooling your home.

Recycled Paper Cellulose Insulation

Paper is a huge waste problem for Americans. In fact, paper and paperboard make up the heftiest portion of the municipal solid waste stream in the U.S. Thankfully, about 89% of all newspaper was recovered for recycling in 2009 (the highest recycling rate for any type of paper product), adding to the 43 million tons of paper and paperboard recycled in the country that year. [1]

Some of this recycled newsprint is sent for recycling to insulation manufacturers who turn it into one type of cellulose insulation. Believe it or not, using newspaper to insulate a 1,500-square-foot house uses the equivalent of newspaper read by one person over a 40-year span. That means that if all new homes in the U.S. were insulated with this recycled newsprint, 3.2 million tons of the recycled newsprint would be effectively re-purposed. [2]

But recycled newspaper insulation has several other important environmental benefits. Most importantly, some studies have shown that cellulose insulation can be up to 38% more energy efficient than fiberglass insulation by sealing a building envelope more effectively against air infiltration than conventional insulating materials. Cellulosic insulation also holds its R-value better than loose-fill fiber insulation at low temperatures.
Plus, the embodied energy in recycled newspaper insulation is much lower than mineral fiber insulation, which requires high-temperature furnaces powered by natural gas. This means a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Some studies show that it takes 15 to 30 times more energy to make conventional fiberglass insulation compared to cellulosic insulation.
Recycled newsprint insulation is also manufactured using locally generated waste material, meaning it travels shorter distances from supply to factory to your home, which further reduces the embodied energy. And because cellulose insulation is so effective at insulating a home, it can reduce utility costs by between 20% and 50%. [3]
So how is recycled newspaper insulation made? Newspaper is turned into insulation by shredding it into small granules until it is a fluffy consistency. This material can then be blown or sprayed into the desired location to fill the spaces. There are two main types of cellulose insulation, including:
Spray-in cellulose: Often referred to as wet-spray or wet-cell cellulose insulation, this is used for new home construction or attic insulation projects. The newspaper nodules are mixed with a bonding agent and then sprayed into the cavities to fill the space. The wet consistency causes the insulation to stick to the surfaces, so it works great for even vertical wall cavities. It is often over-filled and then shaved down to size.
Dry, loose-fill cellulose: This method is generally used to retrofit older homes. It is installed by drilling a hole into the top of a wall and then blowing the loose-fill cellulose into the spaces. This method can often be used by a do-it-yourself home improvement expert.
In addition to the many environmental benefits of cellulosic newspaper insulation, there are other advantages to using this material for your home. First off, the installation options are much more versatile than traditional insulations. That’s because it can be used in hard-to-reach locations and around obstructions, making it easier to install, too.
Recycled paper insulation also provides great sound insulation against exterior noise over fiberglass batts. And since boric acid is used to make most cellulose insulation, the material is naturally resistant to mold and insect pests.
Photo Source: Flickr.com

Hemp Batt Insulation

If you’re looking for a renewable insulation material, then hemp fiber is the way to go. Made by binding together hemp straw into batts and sometimes combined with cotton or polyester materials for reinforcement, hemp batt insulation is similar in form to fiberglass insulation and is therefore used in many of the same applications – loft spaces, between rafters, in walls and floors, and in attics. [4]
The environmental benefits of hemp as a plant and as a building material are many. To start, hemp insulation provides an R-value of approximately 3.5 per inch of thickness, which is similar to other fibrous insulations. [5] Not only that, but hemp insulation can be recycled into other materials or composted, so that deconstruction of it is much less destructive than conventional insulation materials, which often end up in landfills.
But growing hemp for insulation is also incredibly eco-friendly. For instance, hemp plants sequester carbon much more quickly than trees and other plants, making hemp a fighter against global warming. Hemp is also eternally renewable, making it an abundant material that won’t run out as other resources dwindle. And since hemp can be grown organically without pesticides, fungicides, or herbicides, it won’t pollute waterways and soil and is healthier for those harvesting, manufacturing, and living with it.
Photo Source: Flickr.com
Beyond the environmental benefits, hemp has many other benefits to offer. Most attractive is the fact that hemp batt insulation is non-irritating. Because hemp fibers are non-irritating, they can be installed by anyone without the need for protective clothing or gear.
Once installed, hemp insulation offers many advantages over fiberglass and other traditional insulations. It is insect-resistant, often because it is treated with salts or soda to provide nontoxic insect resistance. That means it doesn’t need to be treated with chemicals. This also provides fire-retardant properties.
Hemp batt insulation also provides excellent acoustic insulation, much like newspaper insulation, which provides a more comfortable living environment. With hemp insulation, you don’t need to worry about moisture or mold. Because hemp fibers are hygroscopic, they soak up moisture evenly, providing excellent vapor regulation. And, finally, because hemp insulation is expected to last nearly forever if properly installed, replacement costs are dramatically less over the life of your home.

Walled Paper-Interior Insulation Panels

Turning an oft-hidden building material – concrete – into something that can be shown off while providing insulation is a tall task, but it has been done. Called walled paper, this concept is similar to wallpaper in that it adds a decorative touch to an interior space, but it’s made of concrete panels instead of flimsy, sticky paper.
The difference is that unlike wallpaper, which is, well, just paper, walled paper adds insulation to a home to reduce heat transfer. These concrete panels are installed over existing walls that would otherwise be next-to-impossible to insulate. It’s an instant update to improve the look and the thermal feel of an indoor space.
These panels are also:
  • Fire Resistant
  • Sound Insulating
  • Corrosion Resistant
  • Waterproof
  • Durable
Each concrete panel is created with either a pre-set design or customized graphics and artwork. The designs are printed directly onto the surface of the concrete with a variety of colors and finishes from which to choose.
Photo Source: Concrete-blond.com

Recycled Denim Insulation

Another cellulosic insulation material is that made from recycled denim jeans. Denim insulation, as it is often called, is generally created by using bits of post-industrial denim (the stuff left on the factory floor), which is mixed with a boron-mixture for fire retardance and polyolefin fibers that act as a glue. This material is then formed into insulation batts (much like fiberglass or hemp insulation).
Recycled denim insulation has many of the same environmental benefits of other cellulosic insulations. Perhaps most obviously, this makes use of a waste product from the manufacturing industry. That means less space used in landfills and fewer greenhouse gases from decomposing organic matter (cotton fabric). In fact, one recycled denim insulation manufacturer diverts more than 300 tons of scraps from landfills every month! [6]
Making insulation from a recycled material is also more energy efficient. Since most of the denim travels a short distance from jean-factory to insulation-factory, it’s locally sourced so transport emissions are minimal. Not only that, but because of the 85% recycled content, denim insulation uses minimal energy during the actual manufacturing stage. And like other cellulosic insulation materials, this cotton insulation provides a great R-value for your home – about 3.4 per inch of thickness. [5]
Recycled denim insulation is also better for your health. Though it is treated with a fire retardant, it’s a natural one. So that means no fire hazards and no VOCs in your home. And unlike fiberglass insulation which may cause the itches, recycled cotton denim insulation is non-irritating so it can be installed without protective gear.
Photo Source: Farm2.static.flickr.com

Bio-Based Spray Foam Insulation

One final green insulation option is bio-based spray foam insulation. Made from natural ingredients like soy oil or from recycled soda bottles, these water-based polyurethane formulas are installed by spraying  foaming in place or pouring or injecting a liquid into the desired cavities of your home. When the liquid is exposed to air, it expands up to 100 times in size to fill every nook and cranny in a matter of seconds, yet it remains soft and pliable so it won’t harm the integrity of your home’s structure. It is then trimmed to be flush with the building’s framing.
Though this type of insulation must be installed by a trained professional using protective clothing, it is is an excellent choice for the green homeowner. Most significantly is the fact that spray foam insulation creates an air-tight seal to prevent air leakage and moisture infiltration. This results in a non-drafty, quieter indoor environment. Since spray foam insulation grows to fit its environment, it is easy to install around obstructions and in hard to reach places.
Bio-based spray foam insulations also perform very well and efficiently. They can seal off a home better than batt-type insulations so that there is even less heat transfer. In fact, they seal so well that you will likely need an upgraded ventilation system with this type of insulation to maintain a healthy interior atmosphere. A good seal helps to lower greenhouse gas emissions related to heating and cooling. Green versions of spray foams (not all are) are also made without CFCs and HCFCs – refrigerants used to make foam products that contribute to climate change.
Spray-foam insulations have a similar R-value per inch to batt insulation materials. [7] Over time, this insulation also maintains its R-value, unlike most other insulations that become less effective in certain temperatures and climate conditions.
As with the other natural insulations mentioned here, bio-based spray foam insulation is better for your health than conventional insulations, too. It is made without formaldehyde, so won’t offgas VOCs into your home. And since it helps to prevent mold and drafts, it means a safer home for asthmatics as well.


  1. That Bio-Based Spray Foam technology really looks interesting. Why isn't it mass marketed yet? This is the first time I heard of it.

  2. Start at the top. More heat moves up and out through the roof than through walls or the floor, so tackle the attic first. Fortunately, attics are accessible in most homes. Adding insulation to existing walls, on the other hand, is often difficult and expensive, but you might want to consider it in cold climates, or when you are remodeling.


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