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Sustainable Landscaping Materials for Steps, Walkways and Walls

Many consumers are seeking sustainable options when it comes to their home and yard improvements. Show clients your business is savvy and eco-friendly by demonstrating the range of sustainable landscaping materials you can incorporate into their landscape design.

Here are the top five materials you should consider offering to make your customers’ outdoor living spaces as green as they are unique:

1. Permeable Pavement
A regular asphalt or concrete driveway can cause pollution, says Toni Bailey, landscape specialist at Amicus Green Building Center in Kensington, Md. Water runoff from the driveway or other impervious surfaces collects chemicals and debris, such as lawn fertilizer, and moves too quickly to be deposited in the soil. As such, it could eventually carry pollutants to the closest body of water.

One solution is permeable pavement, a porous surface material that filters rainfall to the soil below and stores the water on site, in the pores of the gravel sub-base. This helps reduce pollution by filtering the water through the particle in the base and dispersing it. “It’s going to recharge the water table and keep water out of the storm drain,” Bailey says. “Existing vegetation is going to have the irrigation it needs.”

Cost: Traditional asphalt is approximately $0.50 to $1 per square foot, while porous pavement can range from $2 to $3 per square foot, according to the Stormwater Manager's Resource Center.

Drawback: Installing permeable pavement is more complicated than pouring a concrete driveway, according to Bailey. “It’s quite a bit of excavation,” she says.

2. Salvaged Wood Walkways, Fencing and Ornaments
Buying salvaged wood is great for the environment because it comes from trees that either fell or were cut down out of necessity. “The biggest advantage of [salvaged wood] is that it doesn’t end up in a landfill or burned as firewood,” says Jeff Hunt, founder, president and CEO of EarthSource, a wholesale distributor and dealer of sustainable wood products.

Cost: The price of salvaged wood can be twice as much as virgin because it’s not mass produced, Hunt says.

Drawback: Salvaged wood is less homogeneous looking, and you can see the grain, curly sections and annual rings, he says. However, that doesn’t have to be a drawback. Benches, decks and fences made from salvaged wood can look more interesting and versatile, and add character to the design.

3. Composite Decking and Fencing
Bailey recommends composite decking and fencing, which is usually made from recycled wheat straw or recycled HDPE plastic (such as from milk jugs and detergent bottles). It won’t age like wooden decking and fencing, she says, which makes it a great reusable product.

“It’s great because you’re giving it another life,” says Bailey, who also recommends learning the origin of anything you buy recycled so that you’re better informed and also investing in your community’s sustainable efforts.

Cost: At about $15 to $17 per linear foot. Composite material costs more than basic wooden decking and fencing, Bailey says.

Drawback: Composite material cannot be painted, so you’re limited to the color it comes in, Bailey says. Also, you can see that it’s plastic up close, but she says it looks like real wood from a distance. 

4. Rubber Mulch
If mulch runoff during a rainstorm is a big concern for you, rubber mulch, which is made of chopped up tires and is heavier than wood mulch, could be a good option.

Rubber mulch won’t wash away and holds water rather than absorbing it, so the mulch doesn’t promote mold growth, says Ari Meisel, green building consultant and author of LEED Materials: A Resource Guide to Green Building.

Cost: According to rubber mulch distributor MagikMulch.com, rubber mulch costs $770 for a five-year application, on average, compared with $1,500 for wood mulch. Rubber mulch product is less expensive; it only requires one installation to last five years, as opposed to wood mulch, which needs to be installed every year. 

Drawback: Like plastic decking or fencing, Meisel says the mulch looks like rubber and is not advisable for hot or dry climates.

5. Recycled Tiles
A pretty tile can be the perfect adornment on a dividing wall, concrete walkway or outdoor kitchen countertop. You can find many tiles made from recycled plastic, glass, ceramic or clay, and some include other decorative materials such as leaves or grass, Bailey says. Recycled tiles prevent recyclable materials from going into a landfill and can also give landscapes a creative, unique look. 

Cost: The prices of recycled tiles range greatly, but they can be as affordable as $5 a square foot, Bailey says. 

Drawback: Downsides vary by material used. 

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