Dow Styrofoam Cradle to Cradle Certified, Despite Chemistry


In a surprising development, Dow Chemical’s Styrofoam brand extruded polystyrene (XPS) insulation has been awarded Cradle to Cradle Silver certification by McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC). When asked about the styrene chemistry and brominated flame retardant in XPS, Steve Bolton, the manager of business development at MBDC, explained that the Cradle to Cradle (C2C) product evaluation is the same for every product. “We look at everything from material health to recyclability,” he told EBN, adding that the company also examines energy use at the manufacturing plant, water quality issues, and corporate social responsibility.

As for brominated flame retardants, Bolton said that these chemicals “are definitely a concern,” but that at the lower certification levels (Basic and Silver) these compounds can be present, as long as there are plans to improve the products over time. (XPS contains the brominated flame retardant HBCD—see EBN Aug. 2009.) At the Gold level, red-listed chemicals, such as brominated flame retardants, are not permitted, according to Bolton.

“It is shocking that a product containing a persistent organic pollutant such as HBCD can be considered green,” said EBN Advisory Board member Arlene Blum, Ph.D., about the certification. Her associate at the Green Science Policy Institute, Alex Madonik, Ph.D., is also surprised. “This certification in no way justifies the continued use of the brominated flame retardant HBCD,” he said. “Since there is no doubt that HBCD will be controlled (and eventually banned) under REACH [the European Union’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals], Dow should tell us what they are doing to replace it.”

According to Bolton, when a client such as Dow engages MBDC, it commits to regular review and improvement. “We will check in at least once per year, if not more often, to make sure that the client is working on problems and making progress,” he said. Bolton explained that the timeline for making an improvement, such as eliminating brominated flame retardants, depends on how challenging the problem is. EBN was not able to confirm with Dow or MBDC a specific timeline for eliminating HBCD from Styrofoam.

Concern about the Silver certification of Styrofoam XPS illustrates a widespread misconception about the C2C program. As explained in EBN’s article “Cradle to Cradle Certification: A Peek Inside MBDC’s Black Box” (see EBN Feb. 2007), at the Basic and Silver levels the C2C standard for chemical safety means only that a product is being carefully examined by MBDC and that the product’s manufacturer knows what is in it and has committed to improving it. Designers expecting a C2C logo to provide assurance that a specific product is free of hazards may want to read the fine print. Red-listed chemicals, such as brominated flame retardants (though not PVC), may be present in products carrying those lower levels of certification, but not in products certified to Gold and Platinum levels. MBDC is aware of this confusion and has told EBN that they are trying to address it.

For more information:

McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry
Charlottesville, Virginia

February 1, 2010


Reader-contributed comments related to Dow Styrofoam Cradle to Cradle Certified, Despite Chemistry - EBN: 19:2. Comments are listed with newest at the top.

Dow Products Recertified at 1-year

Posted by Nadav Malin on Jan 12, 2011, 01:11 PM  
Just got this announcement from Dow:

Originally certified and announced at IBS last year after rigorous analysis, STYROFOAM™ Brand Extruded Polystyrene (XPS) Foam Insulation and SAFETOUCH™ Fiberglass-Free Insulation both recertified at the SILVER level, while STYROFOAM SIS™ Brand Structural Insulated Sheathing, THERMAX™ (ci) Exterior Insulation, and STYROFOAM™ Brand Spray Polyurethane Foam (SPF) Insulation all achieved BASIC recertification.

The announcement doesn't say anything about flame retardants. Are we to assume that they've eliminated HBCD's based on MBDC's stated commitment?

MBDC statement on Dow Styrofoam certification

Posted by Alex Wilson on Feb 14, 2010, 08:44 AM  
MBDC has posted the following statement on its website:

(2/11/10) We have been asked by concerned people about our position regarding flame retardants. MBDC sees HBCD as one the most problematic substances in the chemical industry. HBCD tends to be highly persistent and bioaccumulative and should be removed from the market as soon as possible. With MBDC's Cradle to Cradle® Certification we honor Dow's commitment to replace HBCD and their action plan to do so. In the event Dow would not follow through with their plan at the one-year review, certification would be withdrawn.
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