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A declaration of trust

What are EPDs and what do they say about the sustainability of construction products? Rob Firman has the answers.

ENVIRONMENTAL product declarations, or EPDs, are documents that communicate environmental impact. They can be created for products and services of all types, but this article specifically deals with EPDs as they relate to construction products. An EPD is an internationally-recognised document that is created in accordance with applicable standards – and should be independently verified to confirm it meets those standards.

The flooring sector is no exception when it comes to the increased demand for construction product manufacturers to make EPDs available. Specifiers increasingly want to select products with EPDs for the projects they’re working on. There can, however, be a misconception that simply specifying a product that has an EPD means a ‘sustainable’ choice is being made. Is that actually the case?
How does EN 15804 relate to construction product EPDs?

EN 15804:2012 Sustainability of construction works. Environmental product declarations. Core rules for the product category of construction products describes the reporting of environmental impact for construction products. The standard’s most recent amendment was in 2019.

The contents of EN 15804 are extensive, but some of its key aspects are: it defines parameters that should be declared and how they should be reported; it describes the life cycle stages that can be assessed; and it specifies the quality of data required for reporting.

The full title for an EPD is a ‘Type III environmental product declaration’, which means the EPD’s environmental data has been quantified in accordance with the ISO 14040 series of standards. An EPD reports on the following six environmental impacts:

  • Global warming potential
  • Depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer
  • Acidification potential of soil and water
  • Eutrophication potential
  • Formation potential of tropospheric ozone
  • Abiotic depletion potential.

What is lifecycle assessment in EPDs?
Lifecycle assessment (LCA) makes assumptions about the environmental impact at different stages of a product’s life cycle. An EPD then describes and reports the conclusions of the LCA in a standard format, so designers, specifiers and other construction professionals can make informed decisions.

LCA is done across five stages, which are reported in four modules from A to D. The five stages are: product, construction process (these two make up module A together), use (module B), end of life (module C), and the circular economy (module D). Each module contains numbered sub-categories, and manufacturers currently choose the scope of a product’s LCA reporting.

By covering product manufacturing and construction on site, module A encompasses activities up to a building’s practical completion. As the name ‘Use’ suggests, module B deals with the operation of a building, including the maintenance, repair, replacement, and refurbishment of products.

Module C, the ‘end of life’ stage, addresses what happens to products when a building is no longer required. It assesses impacts relating to deconstruction and demolition, and the processing of waste for reuse, recovery or recycling, or disposal.

The full title of module D is ‘Benefits and loads beyond the system boundary’, which reflects a shift to the circular economy from the linear economy. When materials and products can have their useful life extended across multiple projects then the positive impact of that can be reported here.
Does having an EPD make a product sustainable?

An EPD does not describe whether a product is ‘sustainable’ or not. In fact, it’s important to remember that there’s no such thing as a ‘most sustainable’ product. EPDs are simply a tool, allowing the environmental impact of products to be compared so that choices can be made in support of a construction project’s sustainability goals.

Processing raw materials, manufacturing products, and constructing and maintaining buildings, all adds to environmental impact. Minimising the impact of construction starts with the efficient use of resources, so that we simply consume less.

This is why it has become more common for people to say that the most sustainable building is the one that doesn’t need to be built. Questioning whether new construction is necessary, or if a client’s needs can be met through the reuse of an existing building, means the use of raw materials and new products can be prioritised for where they’re most needed.

The number of available EPDs has grown substantially in the past 10 years, but the scope of reporting across different EPDs is not consistent. That makes it difficult to compare EPDs for similar products.

When data is reported for more stages, the picture of a product’s environmental impact becomes more complete. Product choices can then be made which prioritise the efficient use of resources over the long term. The focus, arguably, should therefore be on making assessment and reporting are as comprehensive as possible, from module A through to module D.

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