Seeing Clearly the Environmental Benefits of Mechanical Insulation—How to Read an Environmental Product Declaration
The Johnny Nash classic song “I Can See Clearly Now” provides a backdrop to this article on Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and their connection to a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and embodied carbon of materials such as mechanical insulation.
To understand what an EPD is one must first look to LCA documentation. The insulation industry is using LCAs to identify products’ embodied carbon impacts more clearly. LCA is a technique following International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards and using software such as SimaPro, GaBi, or OpenLCA to assess potential environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product’s life:
- A1 Raw Materials, A2 Transportation, A3 Manufacturing, A4 Transportation, A5 Assembly/Construction/Install
- B1 Use, B2 Maintenance …. B7 Operational Water Use
- C1 Deconstruction, C2 Transport, C3 Waste Processing, C4 Disposal
Put simply, an LCA measures potential environmental impacts of a product or process.
Why is an LCA important? The words of Nash’s chorus, “I can see all obstacles in my way; gone are the dark clouds that had me blind,” represent the clarity an LCA offers. Typically, it takes 6 to 9 months for a company to collect data, obtain verification, and finalize LCA documents for a particular product. LCAs are usually valid for 5 years and then are updated.
Sustainability and CO2 emissions are top of mind for many building owners and constructors as they are trying to achieve carbon-neutral or net-zero carbon construction targets. An LCA helps them define the potential environmental impacts in terms of “footprint” and “handprint.” Footprint is a newer term for what we used to call pollution. A more formal definition is a measure of the resources necessary to produce the goods that an individual or population consumes. Handprint is simply the benefit of a product to the world. At the end of the day, if the handprint of the product is better than the footprint, the result will be advantageous to the world. Footprint takes, while handprint gives.
Designers of buildings need to consider what is called embodied carbon of the products being used to create the building, as well as the construction of the structure itself. Once built, embodied carbon from building materials is locked into place. The introduction of zero-energy buildings makes buildings more energy efficient and reduces the rate of carbon emissions once they are in operation. The key to determining the embodied carbon of a product is to refer to its EPD.
All about EPDs
An EPD is an independently verified and registered document that communicates transparent information about a product’s environmental impacts throughout its life cycle. EPD documents can be found online in several program operators’ databases, such as https://spot.ul.com/, https://tinyurl.com/3a3ejzek, https://tinyurl.com/5y5cdd3f, and https://tinyurl.com/d2w4xta9. They also can be found on manufacturers’ websites as part of their product certifications, data sheets, and disclosures.
Looking at the carbon emissions associated with a building’s embodied carbon by using a manufacturer’s EPD, first note that the EPD is the main document that quantifies the amount of potential environmental impacts of a manufacturer’s products during its life cycle stages (listed in Background)—called cradle to gate—or its entire life cycle—called cradle to grave. It is estimated that 62% of global greenhouse gas emissions (excluding those from land use and forestry) are released during the extraction, processing, and manufacturing of goods to serve society’s needs, while 38% are emitted in the delivery and use of products or services.
These impacts are included in what is called Life Cycle Impact Assessment:
- Global Warming Potential (GWP )–potential for global warming due to emissions of greenhouse gases to the air
- Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP)–potential for destruction of the ozone layer due to emissions of air
- Acidification Potential (AD)–potential for soil and water acidification from emissions to air of nitrogen and sulfur oxides (acid rain)
- Eutrophication Potential (EP)–potential for over-enrichment of water ecosystems from nitrogen and phosphorous-containing compounds
- Photochemical Ozone (smog) Creation Potential (POCP)–potential for creation of smog
- Abiotic Depletion Potential–Fossil (ADPfossil)–potential to deplete natural fossil fuel resources like coal and oil
- Abiotic Depletion Potential– Elements (APDelements)–potential to deplete natural non-fossil resources
- Water Scarcity Potential / Use of Fresh Water (FW)–relative amount of water used
GWP is largely the metric used by industry because it measures for global warming and is expressed in kg CO2 equivalents. The LCA requires not only detailed information about a manufacturer’s product ingredients, but also knowledge about its operations, its supply chain, and how its products are being used by its customers. An EPD is drafted based on LCA results and follows an industry-consensus set of Product Category Rules (PCRs). All documents undergo third-party verification.
So how can we “see clearly now” the potential environmental impacts of products if we are armed with an EPD? The ISO 14025 standard on EPDs recommends considerable caution when trying to compare numbers from two different EPD documents, particularly if they do not have similar functional units, system boundaries, secondary data sources, and impact assessments. Manufacturers’ development of EPDs will be of benefit to all participants of the mechanical insulation industry. As most readers of this magazine know, mechanical insulation is typically used at high operating temperatures, which translates to better savings on greenhouse gases if insulation is applied to bare pipe surfaces running at higher temperatures. Taking this fact back to embodied carbon and greenhouse gases, on higher temperature applications, mechanical insulation will have a smaller footprint (impact) and a much larger handprint (benefit). How much of an impact can be determined by performing the calculations with a respective manufacturer’s EPDs.
In summary, the mechanical insulation industry provides users of its products tangible benefits of CO2 reduction as well as saving on BTU loss and energy usage. Greenhouse gas reduction is becoming more center stage as companies and states work to reduce their emissions. The mechanical insulation industry is developing tools to help users “see clearly” these benefits. These tools also will help minimize greenwashing, which is the practice of giving a false impression of products being eco-friendly when they are not.
The mechanical insulation industry, led by the National Insulation Association (NIA), is developing the resources—i.e., a glossary of terms, sustainability training, and more—to ensure that “it’s going to be a bright, bright sunshiny day.”