The Big Materials Dream Needs to Include Climate Change and More

We’re finally getting vital toxicity information about building products. But let’s remember that sustainability is about more than avoiding health hazards.

Nadav Malin

For years we advocated for alternatives to formaldehyde-based binders in fiberglass insulation. Then in 2008, Knauf made a huge breakthrough, unveiling its EcoBatt fiberglass insulation with Ecose biobased binder. This was clearly the beginning of the end for formaldehyde binders.

But we couldn’t fully endorse Ecose at first because the company would not reveal exactly what it was. Today, the company continues to be a sustainability leader, including in the area of ingredient transparency. Knauf was one of the first manufacturers to adopt the Declare label, which revealed its binder as dextrose, or sugar.

That kind of challenge was on our minds when we worked with the Healthy Building Network and leading design firms to create the Health Product Declaration (HPD) a couple of years after Ecose came out. We’ve also partnered with the International Living Future Institute to highlight Declare participants in our BuildingGreen Approved product guidance, among other things.

The product transparency movement, particularly with what it tells us about material health, is just getting its feet. It remains a huge priority for the industry. So it’s a great time to bring it into balance with climate change, biodiversity, and other more conventional green building issues.

Disclosure ≠ sustainability

Spurred on by the momentum behind the HPD, Declare, and LEED v4’s Material Ingredients credit, we’re getting unprecedented transparency. Manufacturers are revealing what’s in their products and even making changes to eliminate hazards along the way. This initiative has become so successful that it runs the risk of being mistaken for the whole story when it comes to Dream Materials.

Minimizing hazardous ingredients is an essential aspect of improving the material supply chain, but if we do that at the expense of attending to climate change, biodiversity loss, or social-equity impacts, we’ve not made meaningful progress.

Materials that are used to build or refurbish a building represent a large release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere that can take decades of super-efficient operations to recoup. We don’t have that kind of time.

It’s not either/or

It troubles me when suppliers get the message that their customers only care about HPDs, then abandon their broader life-cycle-based assessments to focus only on health impacts.

I understand the market dynamics behind the Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute’s (C2CPII) move to peel off its Material Health assessment and offer that as a separate offering from the full Cradle to Cradle certification. At the same time, this opens the door to single-track optimization, which may run counter to creating products that are the best we can make them from a more holistic view.

Dreaming (and focusing) even bigger

So I was thrilled to hear from C2CPII’s Stacy Glass that the program is working on staying true to its original, broad vision, with the theme “healthy materials, perpetually cycled.”

Google’s internal Portico Tool is also focused narrowly on health, but the company has signaled an interest in expanding its view by helping fund the Quartz Project.

And I’ve been impressed with the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association’s efforts to pull all these considerations together into one coherent label (with recent updates to its multi-attribute level certification) that covers health, sustainability, and resilience.

It’s been helpful for a time to narrow our focus and get traction on the health front, and we certainly don’t want to slow the amazing progress that’s being made in that arena. But I’m really encouraged by the signs that we’re ready to open that view wider again and address the full spectrum of opportunities for making products that are better in every way.

Are you seeing similar evidence that we’re ready to move to a more holistic view of materials?

Have you seen examples of unfortunate trade-offs, where carbon footprint is compromised in the pursuit of health, or vice versa?

How do you think the design and construction industry should work to encourage the best overall choices? Please comment below.

Published February 9, 2016

Malin, N. (2016, February 9). The Big Materials Dream Needs to Include Climate Change and More. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/big-materials-dream-needs-include-climate-change-and-more

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February 17, 2016 - 1:27 pm

I heartily agree with the sentiment, Nadav, and am encouraged by the programmatic developments you cite to integrate health and environmental impacts in assessment. Given the urgency of climate change issues, the embedded carbon issue is particularly important. 

The first order of business, however, appears to be for the LCA comunity to get its house in order. We still have some fundamental structural challenges with utiliizing LCA data for product comparisons. This is due to a number of stubborn issues including the use of multiple conflicting data bases and ambiguity in PCRs and still some fundamental conflicts about LCA scope. Many of the most respected LCA experts are still strongly warning against comparing products using LCA. Initially designed as a research tool for evaluating the effects of changing processes within a single company's operations, LCA still has a way to go before we can confidently use its results to make comparisons across different companies' operations. 

Addressing these challenges is urgent in order for carbon and other environmental flow data to be able to be evaluated side by side with health.

February 17, 2016 - 4:44 pm

I certainly can't argue with that, Tom. I came across a refreshingly honest EPD yesterday, with this disclaimer:

"Accuracy of Results: Due to PCR constraints, this EPD provides estimations of potential impacts that are inherently limited in terms of accuracy and may include error factors up to a million-fold."

LCA practices have to become better standardized before EPDs are reliably comparable. But there are other ways we can work to reduce the carbon footprint of materials as well. Using wood, for example, instead of other structural materials, is a no-brainer. Any other suggestions?

February 18, 2016 - 7:30 am

The lowest carbon footprint comes from reusing a material without much processing. But then we need to get a handle on the legacy toxics. Argh!

February 18, 2016 - 4:08 pm

Once you've established that you definitely have the lowest carbon option (e.g., recycled or reused), then you need to assess whether any potential "legacy toxics" pose an exposure threat.  It's all very good to steer clear of the complexities of risk assessment and use a purely hazard-based analysis until you are trading avoidance of an unknown local risk (potential exposure to a hazardous substance) for a certain global risk (substantially greater contribution to runaway climate change).  This is one of the missing pieces for helping us figure out whether a reused or recycled material is truly an acceptable risk, given that we already know its benefits for resource efficiency and embodied carbon.  We need better tools to measure potential exposure in an efficient and credible way, but there is also some common sense that can be brought to bear in imagining use and handling of a product during its life cycle.

And yes, Nadav, our product category (carpet tile) is rife with examples of trading purity of Red List Free ingredients for much larger carbon footprints.  EPD data, however imperfect for brand vs. brand comparisons, shows up to 4X differences in the lifecycle carbon footprint of a square yard of carpet, which goes well beyond anything a different data set can account for.  Is a Red List Free product with a 4X greater carbon footprint really healthier (when EBN is reporting climate change as the single biggest public health threat)?  Unfortunately, our current "health" assessment systems for building products would say "yes."  Thanks for your article calling attention to this gap.

(Editor's note: Mikhail wanted us to clarify for anyone who is not aware of it that he is Director of Restorative Enterprise at Interface.)

February 19, 2016 - 9:54 am

Mikhail, thanks for chiming in!

I was specifically talking about salvaging and reusing. I excluded recycling from my comment on purpose, and I don't think it's fair to lump them together. Recycling often has a lower carbon footprint than creating virgin materials, but it typically requires significant energy inputs, whereas the footprint of reuse is typicaly negligible.

And I know I was vague, but I associate the word "legacy" with stuff that is actually illegal or otherwise completely phased out now, like lead paint, asbestos, and PCBs. I guess we can talk about acceptable exposure risks there, but I believe even regulatory frameworks would require a hazard-avoidance approach: if we know there's anything like this in an existing building or salvaged material, we have to completely remove it or completely contain it.

February 22, 2016 - 4:29 pm

Thanks for the clarification Paula.  When we are talking about "legacy materials" like asbestos and PCBs that are highly regulated and known to be persistent AND dangerous even in small amounts, caution is certainly warranted.

Recycling cannot be uniformly said to reduce carbon footprint in the same way as salvage, but is a game changer for durable materials with a very high footprint like aluminum and nylon (and many other durable plastics).  These materials go from highly unsustainable (due to how they are extracted and processed in virgin form) to some of the best if we can get them in recycled form (without any available toxic residuals).

March 3, 2016 - 9:35 pm

It's easy to make that mistake - the EPD world is still evolving, too new for most people to understand, and not the best way to make a product selection within the context of a whole building.  No one is warning against using LCA data for product comparisons.  We are, however, warning against comparing EPDs against each other unless you have enough LCA knowledge to assess comparability of two different studies.  LCA as a tool to determine carbon footprint is highly developed and well-respected, and is without question doing a great job in serving our urgent climate change needs.  Reporting those results through an EPD, on the other hand, definitely has a way to go.  - Jennfer O'Connor

February 18, 2016 - 1:46 pm

Thanks for doing what you do best - pointing us forward and forecasting what is over the horizon. 

Just a cautionary note, however - when we have major manufacturing partners and members in good standing of the green community who have yet to issue HPDs for their products, yet to Declare the ingredients of their products, yet to certifify their products through C2C, we cannot afford to take our eyes off the ball. 

Yes, lets figure out how to best represent the relative environmental impacts of building materials, but while continuing to push for the honest disclosure of the health hazards of the included componant chemicals.  We aren't ready for the Victory Lap just yet.

March 2, 2016 - 11:36 am

We need to look at product holistically; ten years ago it was all about the planet. today it may be shifting to people for good reasons. It is true that our sealed buildings require safe products with low emissions. It is true that one out of 5 Americans is struggling with asthma and/or allergies. It is also true we are spending more than 90% indoors. So considerations on material health and optimization of products are important. I do like the C2C approach as it evaluates the ingredients not only looking atimpact on users and workers but also at its recyclability, it's value and opportunity of closing the loop with safe materials.

No easy task and a lot of work to do.