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Environmental Product Declarations: Check it or Spec it?

Sep 2013

In the effort to increase the transparency of product content, Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) are gaining momentum. They are highlighted in both LEED V.4 and Green Globes – New Construction as pathways for compliance.  EPDs identify the ingredients (feedstocks) in a manufactured product.  A Type III EPD is based on ISO Standards that use a life- cycle approach for evaluation.  This means that potential impacts to the environment are indicated for different phases of a product’s life: Sourcing/ Extraction, Manufacturing, Installation, Use, and End of Life.  There are two classifications of Type III EPDs: Industry Wide EPDs, which are generic to a product type, and Product Specific Declarations, which are manufacturer-specific for a family of products.  The Resilient Floor Covering Institute (RFCI) and UL Environment have recently completed third-party certified EPDs for synthetic rubber and various vinyl products.  The development process spanned more than a year and included 12 resilient flooring manufacturers.

At this point, it’s important to ask a few questions: Will designers use EPDs?  If so, how?  And, if so, what importance will EPDs have versus other product selection criteria?  Will EPDs be used as a basis for comparing products to evaluate the specification, or will designers simply check the box that states an EPD has been completed in order to obtain another rating point?  If EPDs gain in importance, will other criteria such as building service life, maintenance service capabilities, durability, cleanability, and even aesthetics be compromised?  There is a gap in requirements if a designer is not comparing products based upon appropriate application.  First and foremost, a product needs to accomplish the Owner’s Project Requirements (OPR), so that it is chosen based upon the building service life, functional application, and desired aesthetics.

Looking at the recent EPDs, it is interesting to see that the impact potential for rubber and vinyl tile are similar.  Designers are often taught that “environmentally preferable products” are clear choices, when in reality the footprint of many products may be close to the same.  In the charts below for 1-year use and 60-year use there are some minor differences, but in the “Use Phase”, which is the longest timeframe for a product in service, the potential impacts are comparable.  A designer comparing the products would find the specifications for either vinyl tile or synthetic rubber acceptable based on the life-cycle impacts.

It seems that the design community for too long has been taught that products are “good” or “bad” when, in reality, the additional transparency information becoming available shows many products are similar from an environmental perspective.  EPDs can be useful in selecting products based on appropriate applications that meet the Owner’s Project Requirements for the setting being designed. It will be unfortunate if designers simply “check the box” on EPDs rather than looking into the actual data they can provide.

Rubber Tile

Figure 9: CML 2001 – Nov. 2010 impact assessment results for 1-year use

Rubber Tile CML 2001 – Nov. 2010 impact assessment results for 1-year use

Figure 10: CML 2001 – Nov. 2010 impact assessment results for 60-years use

Rubber Tile Figure 10 CML 2001 – Nov. 2010 impact assessment results for 60-years use

Vinyl Tile (luxury and solid vinyl tile)

Figure 9: CML 2001 – Nov. 2010 impact assessment results for 1-year use

Vinyl Tile Figure 9 CML 2001 – Nov. 2010 impact assessment results for 1-year use

Figure 10: CML 2001 – Nov. 2010 impact assessment results for 60-years use

Vinyl Tile Figure 10 CML 2001 – Nov. 2010 impact assessment results for 60-years use

The information above is from EPDs that are available from UL Environment and RFCI.  Designers and manufacturers can keep up to date on EPDs, by following the CEU programming that will be coming soon and available on both UL Environment and RFCI websites.  UL Environment also includes Environmental Product Declarations for wood and other materials as well.

PE International is another organization assisting companies with development of Environmental Product Declarations.

From a designer’s perspective, it is the hope that other flooring products; linoleum, cork, bamboo, carpet, pre-manufactured wood, and others will also provide EPDs in a similar format.  This allows product comparisons to be summarized and complete, demonstrating how transparency can improve the marketability and composition of vinyl products within the design community based upon a life cycle approach.