Chemicals of Concern: Cut through the Controversy

Strategy No. 2: Lifecycle Assessment
Among all of the outcry over LEED’s materials optimization credit, it’s easy to overlook the other two credits awarding careful materials choices – one supporting the use of environmental product declarations (EPDs), which incorporate lifecycle assessment data, and one for choosing responsibly sourced raw materials.

Compared to the red list, lifecycle assessments (LCAs) are more akin to the nutrition facts label on a box of cereal, but they, too, have limitations. There is no single uniform standard for lifecycle assessment, though EPDs are standardized.

“Lifecycle assessment is multi-attribute parameterization,” Yudelson explains. “You’re looking at 15 different characteristics simultaneously and trying to make the best decision based on the information you have. Understanding where you can make better decisions across any of those parameters is an important part of leveraging all of the information out there – for example, there are situations where high global warming products have durability that makes them last for centuries.”

The proposed lifecycle assessment credit in LEED is designed to work in tandem with the raw materials and chemicals of concern credits, notes Brendan Owens, vice president of LEED technical development for USGBC.

You can take a similar approach to your chemicals of concern policies. Lifecycle assessments and red lists are two separate tools, but could be used together, especially since they focus on different aspects of product development.

“Right now, lifecycle assessment isn’t necessarily giving you sufficient information to truly understand what happens from a human health standpoint when you specify a particular material,” Yudelson says. “If you augment your thinking around a lifecycle assessment, but with another lens that helps you factor in human health impacts and ecosystem disruption, you get a much more complete picture of the impact of your decision.”

This clearer picture will help you prioritize which qualities you most require in a product and which ones you can sacrifice in the name of specifying the greenest, highest-performing product.

“Lifecycle assessments give you a look at things like greenhouse gas emissions, energy, and water use,” notes Keith Christman, managing director of the American Chemistry Council. “They may have some shortcomings on chemicals, but they’re about as good as anything out there right now. You’re able to look at tradeoffs and say one product does better on emissions, but it might do a little worse on energy or water use.”

Strategy No. 3: Greening the Supply Chain
Who makes the products you use most often? If your organization buys large quantities of certain products – for instance, if you have a large portfolio – you may be able to leverage that purchasing power by working directly with suppliers and manufacturers to develop greener alternatives.

This type of initiative is also reflected in the newest proposal for LEED v4, Owens adds.

“A company like Herman Miller or Interface doesn’t necessarily manufacture all of the raw materials they use. The ability to control the supply chain of raw materials and components happens further upstream,” Owens explains. “We added a mechanism to LEED intended to provide an opportunity for supply chain optimization to play a role in how products are selected. Some companies don’t have the ability to bring on half a dozen material scientists or epidemiologists, but they could reach out to people who do.”

Approaching manufacturers directly with a carrot instead of a stick incentivizes them to develop more environmentally friendly products and increase transparency, Baer adds.

“When faced with the reality of being encouraged to disclose their practices, most manufacturers are going to change,” Baer explains. “The rationale is that if you look in the mirror and see that you’re ugly, you’re probably going to go back and improve. If you see that you’re desirable, you’ll publish your EPD for manufacturing processes and environmental impact so buyers will be able to make better choices. Think about going to the supermarket – food is now labeled with at least the country of origin, and it might tell you whether the fish is farmed or natural. You might make a different choice than I make, but the information is presented.”

This type of encouragement from consumers is already shaping changes in material composition to some extent, notes Phillips. Identify the ingredients you’re concerned about, then head upstream until your questions are answered. You may just wind up with a solution.

“The agent for the company you’re buying from should take your information back and facilitate a dialogue between you and whichever part of the organization can take up your quest, whether that’s the environmental health and safety department, research, or procurement,” Phillips notes. “It’s a matter of simply raising the concern or asking more about a product.”

For example, consider the PVC question raised by its inclusion on several red lists. In conversation with your vendor, you may learn that your particular manufacturer adheres to stringent quality management protocol that minimizes your human health concerns.

“One of our members was involved on a million-square-foot project for General Motors in Flint, MI. They completely removed a 20-plus-year-old PVC roofing system,” says Jim Hoff, vice president for research for the Center for Environmental Innovation in Roofing and president and CEO of TEGNOS Research. “They took all the material back to their manufacturing plant and recycled it into new PVC roofing material that could last another 20 to 30 years. In fact, the project was so big that the last few rolls for the GM project contained parts of the old roof. That’s as close to closed loop recycling as you can get.”

So what’s an FM to do? Set priorities, pick a strategy, and make the best decisions you can with the information you have. The decision may not be black or white, but you can make it as green as possible.

 

Janelle Penny janelle.penny@buildings.com is associate editor of BUILDINGS.

 


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