The ABCs of EPDs

In today’s marketplace, “green” building and product manufacturing is no longer an emerging trend; rather, it is the new norm — a prerequisite, in fact, for both commercial success and environmental sustainability. It’s no surprise, then, that purchasers are demanding to know the complete story of a product and its impacts on the environment: What is the product’s carbon footprint? To what extent did the product’s raw materials extraction affect the ecosystem? Does the product present a human toxicity risk? Can the product be reused, repurposed or recycled at the end of its useful life?

EPDs: The Future of Green Building Products

Intrepid manufacturers that understand the importance of transparency are now embracing Environmental Product Declarations, or EPDs, and using them to provide specifiers with a complete disclosure of their products’ environmental impacts. Unlike self-declared environmental claims or eco-labels that verify compliance with an environmental standard, EPDs are third-party verified documents that present quantifiable information about a particular product’s impacts across its various life stages.

Additionally, EPDs allow specifiers to compare, with ease and efficiency, the environmental, health and performance impacts of multiple products within a given product category.

EPDs Vs. LCAs

On the surface, it may appear that EPDs are the same as lifecycle analysis, or LCA reports. LCAs highlight a product’s environmental impacts from cradle to grave.

The key difference between LCAs and EPDs is this: while LCAs are essential components of EPDs, the LCAs used in EPDs qualify only if they have been conducted according to a globally harmonized set of guidelines known as product category rules (PCRs). PCRs serve as universally accepted roadmaps that specific products need to follow on their journey toward EPDs. As such, PCRs help streamline and optimize the introduction of environmentally preferable products to the marketplace.

Demand for EPDs

Despite their apparent novelty in North America, EPDs have been used extensively for years in the European Union and Asia, driven mainly by government directives. While there are currently no federal or state requirements for EPDs in the U.S., government purchasing mandates (such as President Obama’s Executive Order 13514, which requires U.S. federal agencies to “leverage federal purchasing power to promote environmentally responsible products and technologies”) are likely to result in de-facto requirements for manufacturers across multiple industries.

Of course, NGOs are also proving instrumental in generating interest in and driving awareness of EPDs. For example, in June 2011, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) unveiled a new pilot credit for its LEED Green Building Rating System that rewards LEED projects for using products with EPDs. Dubbed MR Pilot Credit 43: Certified Products, the credit is poised for formal incorporation into LEED 2012 (including LEED for Schools) as a way to promote transparency of non-structural materials. That the USGBC is placing increased emphasis on EPDs will almost certainly drive global demand for products with EPDs and, in turn, the global adoption of the credit via the vast network of green building organizations that comprise the World Green Building Council.

Educational Value

Of course, beyond the business argument for EPDs, there’s also an educational argument — particularly for school facilities. The use of school building products with EPDs can help facilitate thought-provoking dialogue about environmental stewardship, the importance of preserving the earth’s natural resources and the impact of our everyday choices on our health and the health of the planet. EPDs are, after all, similar to “nutrition labels” for environmentally preferable products.

In effect, the school facility itself can be used as an educational tool that’s incorporated into the learning curriculum. (Incidentally, such a practice might also qualify for an Innovation in Design Credit for Exemplary Performance under LEED for Schools.)

The Bottom Line

For manufacturers, there’s no mistaking that the EPD process is rigorous. But the results are worth the rigor. EPDs provide an objective assessment of a product’s environmental performance; a benchmark for evaluating and making product purchasing decisions; and a tool for clearly communicating a product’s environmental impacts. And in a muddled “green” marketplace, EPDs provide the solution: transparency. 

Rachel R. Belew, LEED-AP BD+C, is the Public Relations and Communications manager at UL Environment. She can be reached at rachel.belew@ul.com.

 

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