The Environmental Impact of Self Storage Facilities

The self storage industry is responsible for a massive amount of greenhouse gasses and other environmental harms — and most customers have no idea.
The Environmental Impact of Self Storage Facilities

In 2021, nearly 1,500 new self storage facilities were built in the U.S., each encompassing an average of 40,000 square feet of space. That’s more than 50 million square feet of storage built in a single year.

While the consumer demand for self-storage is booming, there’s a dirty secret hiding behind all that growth — traditional self storage is terrible for the environment.

Sprawling facilities contribute to deforestation and habitat loss. Electricity and climate control waste enormous amounts of energy. And then there’s the part many people don’t know — most self storage facilities are made out of vast amounts of concrete and steel, two of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

This Earth Day, let’s explore the hidden truths about the traditional self storage industry’s environmental impact — and what can be done to make the storage industry more sustainable.

Traditional Self Storage Is Made of Unsustainable Materials

Traditional Self Storage Is Made of Unsustainable Materials

Let’s break down a traditional self storage facility. It has:

  • A concrete foundation
  • Plain concrete-masonry units (CMU) with reinforcement
  • Roof systems comprised of bar joists, steel decking, and built-up roofing
  • Cold rolled Cee columns (steel pipes filled with cement)
  • Corrugated metal sheeting covering the roof and walls
  • Exterior steel rollup doors manufactured expressly for the self storage industry

In other words, building a self storage facility takes a lot of concrete and steel — two materials that create an enormous amount of carbon dioxide, or CO2. In fact, three materials — concrete, steel, and aluminum — are responsible for 23% of total global emissions. All three are common materials used in building self storage units.

Buildings generate nearly 40% of the CO2 emissions produced globally each year. Of these, building operations are responsible for 28% annually, while materials and construction make up another 11%. Carbon emissions generated from these materials and construction are typically referred to as “embodied carbon.”

Let’s take a closer look at the embodied carbon produced by concrete and steel, the two materials that make up the majority of most traditional self storage facilities.

Concrete Consumes 10% of the World’s Industrial Water Supplies

The cement sector is the third-largest industrial source of pollution in the world, emitting more than 500,000 tons per year of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and carbon monoxide. About 0.9 pounds of carbon dioxide are produced for every pound of cement that’s manufactured, making it one of the world’s top producers of CO2. Cement production alone generates 2.5 billion tons of CO2 per year — about 8% of the world’s total. 

Concrete Consumes 10% of the World's Industrial Water Supplies

And since cement is only one material used to make concrete, manufacturing a single cubic yard (about 3,900 pounds) of concrete emits about 400 pounds of CO2.

Concrete is the most abundant manufactured material on Earth, with 22 billion tons poured each year. In fact, after water, concrete is the most consumed substance on the planet. In addition to the carbon emitted by the industry, manufacturing concrete consumes almost 10% of the world’s industrial water supply.

And the problem is only growing. Concrete production is expected to grow from 4.4 billion tons annually to 5.5 billion tons by 2050. That’s a 25% increase in production in the next few decades.

Steel Production Creates 7-8% of Global Carbon Emissions

The steel industry is another one of the largest carbon producers in the world. Every ton of steel that’s produced emits approximately 1.83 tons of carbon dioxide. Therefore, the industry as a whole generates 7-8% of total global carbon emissions.

It is estimated that around half of all steel produced is used by the construction industry, and about 44% of all steel used in construction is reinforcement. This means that about 1.5% of global carbon emissions can be attributed to steel rebar alone.

Let’s Do the Math

Knowing that producing one cubic yard of concrete (3,900 pounds) emits 400 pounds of carbon dioxide, we set out to estimate the greenhouse gas emissions for a typical, 10-foot by 20-foot self storage unit.

Assuming the floor is made of 4-inch thick concrete, and the walls are covered with 6 inches of concrete, it would take 6.5 cubic yards of concrete to construct a single unit.

At 400 pounds of CO2 per cubic yard, that’s 2,600 pounds of CO2 per 10×20 storage unit.

The average self storage facility in the U.S. is approximately 56,900 square feet, or about 1.31 acres. A facility of this size would fit 284 10×20 storage units. That’s 738,400 pounds of CO2.

According to the Self Storage Almanac, there were 50,523 total storage facilities in the U.S. in 2021. At 738,400 pounds each, that’s 37,306,183,200 pounds of carbon dioxide.

And that’s just from the concrete alone. Unfortunately, it is difficult to estimate how much steel it takes to construct self storage facilities — but if those emissions were accounted for, it  would make the total emissions generated from each self storage facility much higher. Then there’s the 640,000 gallons of gasoline used to construct every 50,000 square feet of commercial space. The impact of constructing these facilities is incredibly vast — and incredibly harmful.

It’s also important to remember that the self storage industry’s environmental impact goes far beyond just materials and construction.

If each of the 50,523 facilities in the U.S. were approximately 1.31 acres in size, that would total 66,185 acres of natural ecosystem destruction. These massive facilities also require an immense amount of energy to provide lighting, heating, cooling, and humidity control for each unit. To take this one step further, consumers should understand that renting a traditional self storage space has an immediate negative impact on the environment.

Consumers Want Sustainable Business Options

Meanwhile, other industries are marketing sustainable alternatives to consumers and challenging legacy brands and industries. As the media focuses more and more on our society’s environmental impact, consumers are More and more of today’s consumers expect businesses to play a positive role in society. Studies also show that when it comes to positive change, most consumers believe brands bear just as much responsibility as governments.

One recent McKinsey study showed that 66% of respondents consider sustainability when they make a purchase. The number is even higher for millennial consumers — 75% said sustainability is a factor for them when choosing whether to support a business.

Consumers Want Sustainable Business Options

Additionally, 82% of consumers say they would consider dropping a brand if it handled a “high stakes issue” in a way that violated their personal values. Climate change and sustainability are considered high stakes issues by many consumers.

It’s clear that customers want businesses to take an active role in protecting the Earth. The self storage industry is not doing that.

The Self Storage Industry is Only Getting Bigger

The self storage industry is growing — 1,290 new facilities were constructed in 2021 alone. And as the industry grows bigger, its impact grows more harmful.

What’s the solution? The self storage industry is ripe for disruption, especially by companies that operate more sustainably.

Next up: The carbon offset of using Neighbor for self storage.