Op-Ed

Opinion: How EPDs Are Improving Our Products—A Manufacturer’s Perspective

Some manufacturers wonder if EPDs are worth the effort. Yes—and the business case is stronger than the marketing case.

Andrée Iffrig, leader of sustainability, DIRTT Environmental Solutions

Photo: Andrée Iffrig
The debate in green building circles over the value of environmental product declarations (EPDs) may not be adding to global warming, but it definitely has been heated. Supporters argue EPDs serve as a sustainability benchmark; opponents decry them as lacking substance, especially about material hazards.

It’s safe to say a single type of product declaration covering a wide gamut of concerns is untenable. But our company, DIRTT, sees the business and environmental value of EPDs and has been actively pursuing EPDs and conducting the associated life-cycle assessments (LCAs).

As a manufacturer of prefabricated interior partitions, we believe EPDs quantify the impact of our solutions through their life cycle. When combined with a whole-building LCA, we see EPDs as a powerful way to determine the sustainability of a building.

The manufacturing business case for EPDs

We’ve been researching and developing EPDs since 2011. The business case for EPDs is actually stronger than the marketing case: DIRTT’s EPDs have helped us to build better by breaking down nearly incomprehensible LCA data into understandable pieces. As another way to mine our large dataset, we’re using a graphically rich tool prepared by our consultant Climate Earth to identify and reduce our environmental impacts, such as:

  • Aiming for a net-zero-waste goal
  • Reducing our packaging impacts
  • Adding more alternative energy to our factories
  • Trimming our offcut rate (an indicator of manufacturing waste)

Acting on the information we generated will be a multi-year effort and will more than repay what we spent on the entire EPD exercise.

For example, we’ve discovered we have an offcut rate around 20%. Although that’s a fraction of the global industry average of 40%–60% (according to the United Nations), we don’t think it’s something to be proud of. If we can improve our processes to shave off even a small amount of waste, that represents millions of dollars in materials we don’t have to buy every year.

Adapt or create a PCR?

Horror stories abound about PCRs taking years to finish, and you’ll hear considerable argument over how comprehensive they really are.

We decided to create a new global PCR for full-height, demountable walls, rather than adapting an existing one for cubicles, to ensure it reflected best practices and the attributes of our walls. Some might quibble with this choice since ISO encourages reusing existing PCRs, but in fact, our products serve a completely different function from cubicles, making comparisons—whether by cost, carbon footprint, or any other metric—questionable at best.

For instance, our PCR requires manufacturers to measure ecotoxicity and human health and air impacts—measures, you may be surprised to learn, that are not required by ISO 14025. While European colleagues did not see the need to include these measures, the North Americans on the PCR committee felt strongly that this deficiency in the ISO standard should be rectified.

In the end, life-cycle results were modeled using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s TRACI 2.1 life-cycle indicators for a very specific functional unit: one square meter of interior wall that conforms to the International Building Code and has an expected 30-year service life (denoted on the EPD as 1m2-30yr).

Was it worth it?

Are our EPDs perfect? Hardly—but they are a significant step in the right direction and have set us on a clearer path toward sustainability.

Any manufacturer that is serious about reducing its environmental impacts needs to be willing to do the benchmark work. Conduct the LCA. Identify which materials and processes are creating the greatest impact. And then do something about it.

Andrée Iffrig, LEED AP, is the Leader, Sustainability at DIRTT Environmental Solutions.

Published August 3, 2015

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