Sustainable Products

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