My Apartment in Plastic

An article by Kathryn Larsen

One of the earlier childhood memories I have is holding a Styrofoam plate and a cup at a Fourth of July barbecue. The squeaky way the material rubbed together, and the way you could leave a mark if you pressed your fingernail into it, are both implanted in my mind.

“You know, we shouldn’t be using these,” I remember another adult telling me. “Styrofoam is terrible- it doesn’t break down for millions of years when we put it into landfills. Soon, we won’t be using them anymore.”

Sure enough, I remember more and more paper plates being used at gatherings. I remember drinking coffee and tea out of Styrofoam until 2008- before this use also vanished and it became cool to have your own reusable thermos (along with a metal water bottle) in your Vera Bradley bag. The consensus of most of the adults around me was that Styrofoam was terrible, polluting and toxic to life.  Good riddance to that.

Later, as a 20-something adult in Copenhagen, I found myself drawing sheets upon sheets of EPS and XPS in construction solutions at school. I asked a teacher what the “hard-packed insulation” I was specifying in my drawings was.

“Oh, it’s Polystyrene- basically Styrofoam.”

The material that had been phased out of single-use packaging and product packaging in my childhood had never actually left us. It was there the entire time, hidden in the construction industry, used to insulate basements and compressed between sandwich panels. As a material, we used it because you could count on it not degrading upon soil contact in your basement or spreading black mold from moisture in a prefabricated concrete wall panel. Yet, each time I specified it in a project, I knew it had a final fate destined to an eternal landfill, because it’s cheap, easy, and convenient. Those three words practically rule the construction industry.

Today, I know that a replacement for polystyrene exists- at least, for small-scale buildings. Residential houses in Denmark are experimenting with mussel shells as a source of hard-packed insulation. It can sit on roofs without blowing away, and it can be buried, in a layer around 800mm-1m thick, under single-family homes, to insulate terrain slabs.

However, polystyrene is only one of the many problematic plastic materials utilized by the construction industry. I decided to draft up a common, new-build type apartment in Copenhagen and create an investigative map of the plastics used – some small, some large, and some hidden in the construction process. 

Click image to enlarge

There was one plastic application that I almost forgot in the process, and it was right under my nose the entire time. It was the acrylic paint on walls, which uses plastic as a binder.

In order to confirm my suspicions, I began searching for common brands of paint online and reading specification labels. As I was searching, I noticed a Canadian building market had a warning label underneath the product.

“Warning – causes cancer and damage to reproductive organs.” Proposition 65 in Canada requires this warning to be labeled on materials with hazardous substances.

Curiously, in Denmark, an otherwise well-regulated country, we lack similar regulation.  Even more disturbing, as I dug through a common paint manufacturer’s documentation, I found that there is close-to-no data compiled on the health risks.

Skin corrosion/irritation

No data available

Serious eye damage/eye irritation

No data available

Respiratory sensitization or skin sensitization

The product contains substances that can trigger an allergic reaction in already sensitized people.

Germ cell mutagenicity

No data available

Carcinogenic properties

No data available

Reproductive toxicity

No data available

There’s no data available, because the data isn’t required to be available, for a product to be released onto the building market here. This is an issue because paints and other surface materials are not inert. Even after they are dried and applied, they are off-gassing substances that we cannot see or smell inside of buildings. We spend 90% of our lives in buildings. We deserve to know, in the form of data, what that’s doing to us, and to our children that we raise inside these walls.

Beyond the concern of what materials like these are doing to me, or the environment, I also wondered how this impacts construction workers.

Our construction workers put in the physical, back-breaking labor to take ideas from paper to reality. Without them, an architecture project does not exist.

They too, deserve data for their safety, and deserve to know how working with these products can affect them. After all, they are the ones that face daily exposure, from hours on end, working with these products.

While the data is missing from paint cans, a study from 2022[1] showed that men who worked as painters, especially for construction and repair, had an elevated risk of lung cancer. Is it ethical for me as an architect, to specify a paint that I have reason to know, could be carcinogenic for the person applying it? I don’t think so.

While the sheer number of plastics in buildings, as well as the health and environmental impacts might seem overwhelming, there is something we can do about it.

We can demand for greater transparency, and more testing of building products from our governments. Having a warning label on products clearly displayed, like proposition 65 in Canada requires, is the bare minimum we deserve. In addition to this, we can demand that non-biodegradable or non-recyclable plastics for certain applications, like fittings and fixtures be phased out. For those of us who are clients of building projects, we can be more open to alternative applications that are safer and healthier for everyone involved, like using clay paints over acrylics.

It is never easy to go against the grain of cheap, easy and convenient in construction. It is necessary, however. In an era of climate change and worldwide pollution from industrial waste, we can’t just keep saying, “it’s business as usual.”


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