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  • EPD’s unlock the secrets of how we can lower environmental impact

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To meet international climate obligations, Australia is looking to increase the share of renewable energy in the grid to more than 80% by 2030. Considering April 2023’s Clean Energy Australia report assessed the current share as 36% – then energy from. The same decline is not so likely for embodied emissions if we keep following the business-as-usual pathway.

For the construction industry to lower its emissions, it is time to closely examine its carbon intensive supply chain and the environmental impacts associated with the building materials and products used. 

In a similar way to how we decide on healthier choices by referring to the nutritional information on food packaging, EPDs (Environmental Product Disclosures) are a way that the industry can become more informed about the extent to which their selections create environmental impact. EPDs in the format of downloadable documents provide the summarised data on a particular product or material’s environmental impact by relating the quantity of those impacts to a unit called the ‘functional unit’ that allows for cross-comparison. 

By condensing a product or material’s journey from when it was first produced to when it arrives at site or enters the waste stream to a set of numbers, we can better understand something of the manufacturing backstory behind the product. Besides environmental impact indicators, the amount of resource use (particularly different fuel types) and the amount of waste created are also declared in relation to the ‘functional unit’. The environmental impact indicators within an EPD are valuable to building professionals in the race to net zero emissions because they contain indicators about carbon emissions and are typically product-specific. 

The Green Building Council of Australia’s interim Upfront Carbon Emissions calculation guide sets the basis for how product-specific emission factors are to be used for upfront carbon comparisons against typical reference buildings. In its current interim form, the guideline states that these product-specific emissions are to be use in preference to industry specific emission factors or material databases with generic values. It also cautions that product-specific emission factors and generic emission factors are only to be used in the same calculation if they are used for different building elements. 

Using the information contained within EPD’s means wholistic sustainable choices can be made that go beyond considerations of climate change. For example, of the 13 core impact indicators smog potential, acidification potential and another for water deprivation potential all of which have flow on affects to human health.  

Here are three ways EPDs can be used by building professionals to achieve better environmental outcomes: 

  • Comparability: EPDs enable building professionals to compare the environmental impact of different products, materials, or systems. The added transparency they provide, which is consistent with industry-established protocols that empowers collective environmentally conscious decision making. 
  • Whole of life thinking: EPDs encourage adoption of a whole of life cycle perspective. By considering the full life cycle of a product, from raw material extraction to disposal, we can identify opportunities to minimize environmental impacts and make sustainable choices that promote a circular economy. As of 2023 it is now mandatory to not only include upfront carbon information but also offer likely scenarios for the product or material’s end of life. 
  • Certification and labelling: EPDs are often associated with certification and labelling programs that validate a product’s environmental claims. Building professionals can check for certified products with EPDs to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the environmental claims and sidestep the greenwash. 

Referring to EPDs is important when specifying. It enables building professionals to make more informed choices, compare products, select materials with lower carbon footprints, consider the full life cycle of products, and contribute to carbon footprint reduction just as nutritional information in food packaging keeps us healthy understanding and using EPD’s will help keep the planet healthy. 

Author: Myles Bunning