Chapter Corner

Sustainable Products

Posted in: Features, August 2013

Sustainable_Insights.gifYou are designing a structure with sustainability in mind, and you want the products you are installing to be “green” and possibly help you get points, in the case of a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-type structure. You may find that it is challenging to know if the product you are deciding to buy is indeed a sustainable product and determining if it is your best “green” choice. Unfortunately the sustainable product market can be pretty scary and quite fragmented. Some products make claims of being green with nothing to back those claims up, and others have a pedigree a mile long that is just plain confusing. There is no doubt about it; you have a challenge on your hands when selecting green products. This article will attempt to break the ice and provide guidance to help navigate your way through the green fields of products. Some background and tips may be quite helpful during your next project.

There are some basic building blocks that can make your job easier. In the end you are looking for transparency in the product claims. Transparency in the details is what makes a product deserve the label “green.” The Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and the Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) are two great places to start. Let’s give a brief overview of both of these documents.

Life Cycle Assessment

In order to fairly claim the sustainability of a product, one must first understand the environmental inputs and outputs of that product. The LCA will aggregate all the associated impacts across an entire life cycle from cradle to grave, from when the materials were mined and taken from the earth, through the manufacturing of the product, packaging, transportation, consumer use, and disposal. Considering the entire product life cycle is at the very heart of any environmentally conscious design process and a required element for compliance with any related standard.

Starting with the raw material extraction stage, manufacturing, testing, packaging, delivery, use, and disposal; one must account for the inputs, outputs, emissions, raw material consumption, energy utilization, energy losses, and recyclability of the materials. In LCA terminology, this is called a cradle-to-grave approach. Taking it a step further, one could also perform a cradle-to-cradle study, where the end-of-life treatment of all materials is accounted for and loop the credits back in to the product life cycle. Such an approach is beneficial both environmentally and economically.

The outputs of an LCA include the carbon footprint, energy footprint, impact on human heath, and impact on ecosystem. This information is the foundation needed to educate customers/stakeholders, make comparitive assertions against competitive products, demonstrate environmental sustainability leadership, and create the EPD.

The LCA is informative, but it has limitations. Some of these limitations will be reduced in the near-term as people around the world continue to increase the scope of LCA databases and impact assessment methods, while other limitations will remain because they are inherent to the method. You have to take the LCA for what it is; it is a report of the details behind the life cycle of a product. Having one does not mean the product is green. It merely means that someone took the time to analyze the life cycle of the product.

Environmental Product Declaration

An EPD reports the environmental impact of goods or services. EPDs are based upon an established set of Product Category Rules (PCRs) and the data from an independently verified LCA. This data enables comparability of impacts across products in a specified category. EPDs provide a tool to disclose LCA environmental impact information. Some of the information that may be found in an EPD includes:

  • Material content,
  • Recycled content,
  • Service life,
  • Global warming potential,
  • Water consumption,
  • Emissions to air and water,
  • Waste generation,
  • Ozone depletion potential, and
  • Respiratory effects.

Knowing this information makes it possible for any interested party to determine the environmental impact of any product or assembled group of products.

Sustainable Product Declarations and Certifications

Some product manufacturers will simply market products as green with no review process, others may have instilled internal review processes to manage green claims, and still others will seek third-party assistance in certifying their products are indeed sustainable. To make things a little more confusing, even the third-party certifications need to be understood as to what is being certified. Some certifications will certify a single attribute. For example, the single attribute may be energy efficiency or recycled content. But remember that you can have an energy-efficient product that is still harmful for the environment for other reasons.

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The following URL is a link to a document that was put together by the Green Building Alliance and illustrates all of the different types of product certifications (www.gbapgh.org//upload/media/29_GBA_Green _Building_Product_Certification__Labeling_Systems _web.pdf). It highlights those that are single attributes and those that more comprehensive. In general a comprehensive certification like SMaRT from the Market Transformation to Sustainability (MTS) organization is your better choice for certification. Standards like SMaRT take a holistic approach to measuring the sustainable product. SMaRT is to a product as what LEED is to a structure. Seeking out product that have these types of third-party certifications is your best option. Otherwise, you will want to review the organization’s program around sustainability to gain the confidence that you are not purchasing a product that is making false or misleading green claims. Just because a product is green doesn’t mean the product is green in the sense that you intend.

EcoStamp_Insights.gifWhat to Look For

There are some basic things to watch for when purchasing a green product. The following are just a few to get your wheels turning:

  1. Missing proof: This is the first flag that should get your bells ringing. Supporting information for the green claims must be available. The manufacturer must be able to back up their environmental claims.

  2. Vague claims: This may be an easy trap to fall into. Imagine buying a product that is labeled as “all-natural” and then finding out it has uranium or mercury components. Those are all natural materials, but they are poisonous.

  3. Irrelevant claims: Now here’s another one that will make you shake your head. How about a product that claims it is chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) free? That sounds great until you realize that CFCs are banned by law. Or if makes claims that have nothing to do with the product just to make a sustainable claim. Be careful. Read and understand what is being marketed.

  4. Lesser of two evils: This occurs when a claim is being used to detract from some other negative environmental impact. An example of this may be energy efficiency claims on a product that is comprised of other hazardous materials.

  5. Incorrect or misleading labels: Coloring a product green or putting a label on the product that makes you think it is green are examples of this.

Just as any product you purchase, reading and understanding the information provided from the manufacturer is important. Ask questions to gain the comfort level you need before you purchase. If you are working on a LEED structure, new LEED changes are providing points for such third-party certifications as SMaRT-certified products. EPDs are also able to receive credit through the LEED point system. Including sustainable products on your next project just may earn you points.

Thomas Domitrovich, P.E. is a National Application Engineer with Eaton Corporation in Pittsburgh, PA. He has more than 20 years of experience as an Electrical Engineer and is a LEED Accredited Professional. Thomas is active in various trade organizations on various levels with the Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC), International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI), Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), National Manufacturer’s Association (NEMA) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Thomas is involved with and chairs various committees for NEMA and IEEE and is an alternate member on NFPA 73. He is very active in the state-by-state adoption process of NFPA 70 working closely with review committees and other key organizations in this effort.