Blog Post

NSF’s Fly Ash Ruling and Post-Consumer Alchemy

Since when are coal-burning power plants “consumers”? A look at NSF’s dubious recycling definitions.

BioCel carpet backing replaces petroleum-based polymers with those made from soybeans and contains Celceram fly ash as recycled content.Photo Credit: United Textile

Fly ash, a by-product of coal combustion, is considered “post-industrial” or “pre-consumer” recycled content by just about everyone…with the notable exception of NSF, which recently, and inexplicably, decided to label fly ash “post-consumer” for its NSF-140 carpet standard.

NSF justifies this labeling change—explored here by the Healthy Building Network’s Tom Lent—as follows:

“It is our contention that coal is consumed by the utility (the end consumer of the coal) in the process of production of electricity and that Celceram [Boral’s branded fly ash] is a product that can no longer be used for its intended purpose (i.e., the generation of heat to create steam) and would otherwise be sent to the waste stream.”

Hmm, industrial waste is now post-consumer recycled content? It is a dubious argument at best.

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GreenSpec’s fly ash policy

For now, GreenSpec supports the use of fly ash in building products such as concrete because it improves concrete’s performance and replaces a significant amount of portland cement, which is energy-intensive to produce and generates carbon dioxide and other hazardous emissions during calcination.

As before this “post-consumer” flap, GreenSpec does not support the use of fly ash as a filler in products such as carpet backing where its use does not significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Toxicity concerns

The main reason for this was brought up Tom Lent: fly ash contains trace amounts of mercury and a number of other toxicants. These can be released into the watershed when landfilled, but when fly ash is used in concrete, the minerals become part of the chemical reaction and the toxicants “bound,” minimizing the risk of exposure or leaching, but that’s not the case when it’s used in carpet backing.

Even the data about leaching from concrete are not conclusive, however, and we are keeping an eye on the research. Some people think fly ash should not be used in green buildings, but it is important to remember that portland cement also contains hexavalent chromium and trace amounts of hazardous compounds, so eliminating fly ash from concrete will not entirely eliminate toxicity or potential end-of-life disposal concerns.

NSF is tarnishing its certification

Fly ash is a complicated issue, and we don’t need to add to the confusion, but NSF might be doing just that by erroneously boosting the number of LEED credits available for recycled content and watering down the NSF-140 Platinum standard.

Carpets that now meet its “gold” standard could be transmuted into “platinum,” encouraging other carpet manufacturers to include fly ash in their products. And if you want to avoid fly ash in carpet, good luck finding that information among the NSF-140 documentation, as the credit information for individual products is not readily available to the public.

Moving forward

GreenSpec is going to stay consistent with its longstanding policy and will not follow NSF’s decision to label fly ash in carpet as “post-consumer” recycled content.

And we join HBN in calling for LEED to do the same. From now on, GreenSpec will scrutinize NSF-140 Platinum carpets and will continue to reject any that contain fly ash.

Published October 25, 2012

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Comments

November 19, 2012 - 9:50 pm

Thanks Greta. That's great news. The definition of post-consumer recycled content in ISO 14021 is not as clear as it could be, so thanks, too, for working to clarify that language.

Brent

November 19, 2012 - 4:51 pm

NSF International has retracted verification of the claim that Boral Material Technologies fly ash is a post-consumer material. Even though there is room for interpretation when classifying specific recycled materials against current definitions of "post-consumer," historically fly ash has been classified as a pre-consumer waste, and NSF agrees this is the generally accepted classification. Additionally, NSF Sustainability intends to pursue, through the ISO technical committee, a clarification in language describing post-consumer recycled content in the ISO 14021 environmental labels and declarations standard.

November 2, 2012 - 10:47 am

Hi Greta,

Let me see if I understand this. NSF 140’s original wording was:

 Coal fly ash used as a filler or binding agent qualifies as post-industrial/pre-consumer content only, as do other post-industrial/pre-consumer fillers or binders.

And was changed to the following after a submittal from Frank Hurd from CRI with, seemingly, the intent of getting Calceram listed as post-consumer.

The determination of post-industrial/pre-consumer or post-consumer content shall comply with an existing recognized national or international standard definition.

The letter from Hurd to NSF clarifies the rationale behind this pending change:

“We believe that the way to address this issue is to allow products that may have been generalized in the past as post-industrial/pre-consumer, to be considered post-consumer if their claims are verified by a recognized third party as post-consumer using accepted national and international standards.”

In this case, Hurd contends in his letter that Caleram fly ash meets ISO 14021 which he states defines post-consumer as: “Materials generated by households or by commercial, industrial, and institutional facilities in their role as end-users of the product which can no longer be used for its intended purpose.”

The definition of “product” seems to be the problem here. In the case of coal fly ash, the “product” is electricity and not the fly ash. Fly ash is “Material diverted from the waste stream during a manufacturing process,” ISO's very definition of post-industrial/pre-consumer.

I don’t think the intent of ISO 14021 is to allow industrial waste or by-products of manufacturing be counted as post-consumer recycled content.

Is NSF really going to allow coal fly ash to meet the ISO 14021 definition of “product”? And by doing so, is NSF, by proxy, allowing fly ash as post-consumer content without taking responsibility for that determination? And how would an end-user know whether or not fly ash is in the carpet if it is just declared as a general post-consumer material?

November 1, 2012 - 7:06 pm

The proposal before the NSF 140 joint committee does not re-classify coal fly ash from a pre-consumer material to a post consumer material. While a reference to coal fly ash is proposed for deletion from the standard, the question to the joint committee is whether the NSF 140 standard should classify recycled content for individual materials, as it currently does for coal fly ash.  Here is a link directly to the proposed language.

To answer Tristan’s question about the steps left before a change can be made to the standard, the initial ballot of the joint committee received negative votes. These votes are subject to a response and adjudication process, which may require a subsequent re-ballot of the proposal. NSF’s Council of Public Health Consultants also has to approve the proposed change before it can be finalized.

October 31, 2012 - 3:32 pm

While the NSF 140 Joint Committee has concluded a consensus vote on a proposal related to fly ash, the processing of this proposal has not been completed and therefore no changes to NSF/ANSI 140 have been finalized.

October 31, 2012 - 11:50 am

The NSF Joint Committee voted affirmatively  to make the change  in NSF 140 from preconsumer to post consumer http://standards.nsf.org/apps/org/workgroup/sustainable_carpet_jc/ballot... . That means that unless the vote is reopened and reversed, this new liberal definition will be a part of the next release of NSF 140.

October 31, 2012 - 9:59 am

We appreciate the recent interest in NSF Standard 140, the American National Standard for sustainability assessment for carpet. As has been acknowledged in the recent posting, the Joint Committee responsible for the content of the Standard has considered changes regarding coal fly ash. With respect to NSF certifications to this Standard, NSF has not recognized coal fly ash as post-consumer in any NSF Standard 140 certifications and will not unless the Joint Committee agrees to make a change, and that change is adopted and published.  For those interested in tracking the process, which is fully open and transparent, visit http://standards.nsf.org.

October 29, 2012 - 3:34 pm

Let's keep in mind that there are two separate issues discussed in the article.  First, is the issue of what constitutes end use consumption.  The other is the toxicity of waste substances.  In the first instance, what should we call corrugated cardboard that that is used to ship raw materials, parts, components, etc to a manufacturing facility?  It's typically classified as municipal waste, arguably an end use (shipping packaging), and generally recycled.  How about waste metal from milling operations?  It's classified as an Industrial waste that isn't hazardous waste (assuming no contamination) and can't be reused as is, is used to make another product (e.g., a tool), and is generally collected and recycled as scrap metal.  Are these "pre-" or "post-" consumer?  And how about a manufacturer that uses a polymer resin in a process to create a product where waste is generated and where a portion of this industrial waste can be put back into its manufacturing processand the rest is sent off-site to a recycler.   Pre- or post or both?  

On the other issue, regardless of pre- or post- status, an industrial waste that is hazardous or has toxic constituents should not end up being used in a manner that would result in releases to the environment or harm to human health.

October 29, 2012 - 3:34 pm

Let's keep in mind that there are two separate issues discussed in the article.  First, is the issue of what constitutes end use consumption.  The other is the toxicity of waste substances.  In the first instance, what should we call corrugated cardboard that that is used to ship raw materials, parts, components, etc to a manufacturing facility?  It's typically classified as municipal waste, arguably an end use (shipping packaging), and generally recycled.  How about waste metal from milling operations?  It's classified as an Industrial waste that isn't hazardous waste (assuming no contamination) and can't be reused as is, is used to make another product (e.g., a tool), and is generally collected and recycled as scrap metal.  Are these "pre-" or "post-" consumer?  And how about a manufacturer that uses a polymer resin in a process to create a product where waste is generated and where a portion of this industrial waste can be put back into its manufacturing processand the rest is sent off-site to a recycler.   Pre- or post or both?  

On the other issue, regardless of pre- or post- status, an industrial waste that is hazardous or has toxic constituents should not end up being used in a manner that would result in releases to the environment or harm to human health.

October 26, 2012 - 3:13 pm

NSF's interpretation that "consumption" in an industrial process is equivalent to a consumer's end use of a product, is odd. It is not clear to me what industrial waste will remain in the pre-consumer category under the new NSF interpretation.

All industrial waste (in this case fly ash) comes from a material (in this case coal) being used by the manufacturer (in this case a utility) in the process of production of another product (in this case electricity). The coal is not an end product that the utility consumed as an end in itself, the way the carpet is "consumed" by the end purchaser for its service of being a soft thing on the floor for a few years.Rather the coal was just an input to an industrial process to make a different product - electricity.

By NSF's interpretation, it apears to me that all industrial waste would be considered post consumer. I can't imagine what industrial waste  would not fit.