Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) help us understand the environmental impacts of products; and where we can focus to improve outcomes.
According to CSR’s Group Sustainability Manager, Linden Birch, the growing use of EPDs allows businesses to clearly document and communicate the environmental impacts of their products. To prepare an EPD however a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) must first be conducted.
“For CSR, the life cycle analysis is a measure of the environmental impacts of that product across its life, also known as cradle to grave. So we go from extraction of raw materials through to the end of the product’s life, whether that be disposal in a landfill or reuse in another product,” Birch says.
“An EPD is the distillation of the findings of the LCA in a form which allows us to compare many different products against a common set of guidelines.”
Linden Birch emphasises how important it is to note the different types of EPDs.
Type I (ISO14024): essentially environmental labelling – based on a single criteria such as energy efficiency and one type of product e.g. refrigerators or light globes.
Type II (ISO14021): environmental self-declaration or self-declared environmental claims where you are free to choose the criteria you include. This type is most commonly used by building products manufacturers, is quite cost effective and may even be audited. The LCA is commonly conducted by external consultants, however the EPD is developed internally according to standardised processes detailed in the ISO standard.
Type III (ISO14025): environmental labels and product declarations – created on the basis of criteria which were developed with the involvement of independent third parties and are independently verified. This type of EPD requires external consultants to conduct the LCA or to review LCA data and prepare the EPD.
For CSR’s various EPDs we chose to conduct Cradle to Grave LCAs focusing on:
- Embodied energy
- Global warming potential (embodied emissions)
- Abiotic depletion
- Human toxicity
- Fresh water aquatic ecotoxicity
- Photochemical oxidation (smog potential)
- Terrestrial ecotoxicity
- Ozone layer depletion
While EPDs are more common in Europe, the US and parts of Asia, they are now gaining more purpose and use in Australia (and New Zealand).
Birch says big developers and their architects now ask for EPDs especially if they need them for a high Green Star rating of a building. (From 2014, the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) provides credits for EPDs as well as building-level Life Cycle Assessments within Green Star).
“Yes, the bigger players are asking for them but generally not the mid tiers ,” she confirms. “It is a simple mechanism for a consumer – whether it’s a developer or a guy building his house – to try and understand what impacts this particular product has on the environment.”)
Birch points out the person or the company that puts out the product declaration can be held to account for that impact.
“There’s an external pressure in that respect. Internally (at CSR) it allows us to see – demonstrably – where most of our impacts occur and it allows us to say, ‘okay, in this particular process, comparing it to other processes in our company, we’ve got more impacts in this area for these products than we have for these products over there, therefore our discretionary effort and capital should apply to these products because of the impact being greater’.”
EPDs have a current validity of five years. “This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do another complete LCA after the five years, but instead go back and see if the data is still current,” Birch says. “Generally, the main parameters should be looked at and updated if there’s a 10 per cent difference to the currently published data.”
Joel Clayton is a senior consultant with Edge Environment, a consulting and design firm advising and supporting a top-tier cross section of Australian companies, government and NGOs “to measure, understand and manage the environmental and social impacts of their products, services and operations”.
Clayton explains EPDs to clients in purposely similar terms to a publicly well accepted nutrition campaign.
“What you’re going to have one day is the same table on every building product, like you do with your food where you can more easily compare the fat content or the sugar content; but you’ll instead be comparing the environmental impact, so you can directly make certain building products comparable. So if you’ve got a building product that does the same thing, you can just have a look and you can see which one’s better environmentally,” he says.
As the executive behind Mirvac’s industry leading sustainability strategy ‘This Changes Everything’ Paul Edwards is also a strong advocate for the role of certification, ratings and descriptive systems generally.
“I think one of the things about any certification rated scheme or labelling is they provide a very good common language for all key stakeholders to understand,” says Edwards, who is now head of HSE and Sustainability at Mirvac.
“Whether it’s a Green Star rating on a whole building where an investor can understand, a tenant can understand, or designers can understand, and the Council can understand, they give you a really good clear understanding of the ambition of that building, and that design and the actual intent at the end.
“With EPDs, I think they’re in their infancy, but they’re going to be the way that a business like ours can understand the sustainable impacts, the environmental impacts of a product or a material and its creation. For us at the moment it’s a missing link, because we order a lot of materials from vastly different locations, places, resources; and for us to go and investigate every one of those materials individually on our own would cost an absolute fortune and take an incredible amount of time.
“If there’s a common system in place that everyone trusts that gives you the information firsthand, it provides you that as a part of a decision making process. It’s not going to be the only part of that decision making process, they’ll obviously be factors like time, durability, fit for purpose as well as cost. I think – with all these factors – they provide a very good common denominator and common language.”
For the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA), Executive Director, Jorge Chapa confirms their rating tools clearly recognise the use of EPDs in demonstrating that buildings are using better quality products.
“One of the reasons we have better quality now is not because we’re doing a comparison of say one EPD versus another EPD; the act of having an environmental product declaration that is developed properly in accordance with the standard means that organisation understand its impacts,” he says.
“And the moment you understand your impacts, you can start measuring them and you can start improving them. So by using that product you’re recognising that is a better product or a better outcome than one that doesn’t have an environmental product declaration. Now, EPDs are not the only way we recognise that, but they are a method of recognising that.’’
Chapa is very pleased about the recent introduction of EPDs to the building sector in Australia
“EPDs have been around for a while – it’s not a new process. What’s new is their application in the building product sphere at a large scale, and in a way that will start allowing developers and practitioners and builders and consultants to start measuring the large eco-impacts of a building.
“Since the introduction in Australia we’ve started to see product manufacturers become very interested in the area in a way where we hadn’t even been able to start the conversation before.”
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