Construction site with cranes lit starkly with sunlight.

What is an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) and what is it used for?

Today’s consumers are more eco-conscious than ever, but so are developers. Indeed, it seems that when building modern day structures, both consumers and developers are looking for assurances that every aspect of their buildings is truly green.

A great way of accomplishing this is performing a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of the product or material. To understand more about LCAs and how they are tied to Environmental Product Declarations, or EPDs, let’s get into some details.

Life Cycle

For starters, the concept of a ‘life cycle’ of a product comprises different stages, first of which includes extraction of raw material, the manufacturing process, and transportation to its final destination, that may be a warehouse or a construction site. Next comes the ‘use’ phase wherein the finished product is utilized, repaired, and maintained, until the end of its service life. Lastly, the post-operational stage that comes into play once the product has been either worn out, or can no longer serve the purpose it was in use for; it must then be disposed of to a landfill, or be upcycled to support a circular economy.

Life Cycle Assessment in Construction

LCAs in construction help in evaluating the environmental impacts of materials and products throughout the entire life cycle of the product, including all upstream and downstream processes associated with its production and disposal. Impact categories comprise emissions or discharge to the environment from all these processes, and include the following at a minimum: global warming potential, acidification, eutrophication, stratospheric ozone depletion, smog formation, etc.

Environmental Product Declaration

This is where Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) come in. An EPD is produced on the basis of an LCA study and provides a quantitative basis for comparison of products from business to business. According to the International EPD system, an EPD “is an independently verified and registered document that communicates transparent and comparable information about the life-cycle environmental impact of products.” Essentially a comprehensive, short version of the LCA containing no more than the results of calculations and a description of the product, an EPD is usually provided by the manufacturer and verified by an independent entity. The general goal of EPDs is to use verifiable and accurate information to encourage the demand for, and supply of products that have a lower negative impact on the environment. This can in turn lead to market transformation with green procurement, encouraging users to choose sustainable alternatives to counterparts that may not have any green credentials.

Additionally, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 14025 defines EPDs as a Type III declaration that “quantifies environmental information on the life cycle of a product to enable comparisons between products fulfilling the same function.” In simpler terms, EPDs offer standardized ways of reporting the environmental impacts of products from the start to the end of their service life cycle that may be 5/10/30 years.

Still unsure about the concept of EPDs? Well, consider the ‘nutrition label’ of food products. Similar to how we make informed choices for food selection in terms of nutrients, calories etc. based on these labels, we can choose materials for our buildings based on their level of impact on the environment, or through analyzing EPDs – to ascertain which ones would have less of an effect on the environment based on their life cycle results.

EPDs and Corporate Social Responsibility

Although EPDs now primarily serve to help eco-conscious consumers to choose goods and services, they were fundamentally created to facilitate business-to-business transactions.

Companies often implement them to showcase their ongoing commitment to the environment, such as sustainability strategies. In that sense, they serve well as great marketing tools for eco-friendly firms who need to communicate to consumers why they may be a better choice than counterparts with a lack of transparency in their reporting. Additionally, their main goal would translate to being incorporated within the company’s CSR policy, ensuring that green credentials are met. In light of this, most EPD reports, available from the International EPD system, are designed to be easily understood by both consumers and retailers.

Impact of EPDs on Sustainable Construction

But EPDs are not merely a tool for face value. A verified EPD can earn a project relevant credits for when targeting certification such as LEED, BREEAM or other similar green building rating systems.

The construction sector is a pioneer for embracing environmental credentials of products by creating LCAs and EPDs. Within the construction industry, EPDs support selection of low GHG emitting products through careful consideration of materials based on their carbon footprint from cradle to grave, thereby making it possible to choose suitable materials based on their impacts, which would contribute to the project’s sustainability aspirations.

And the advent of EPDs is already changing the way buildings are constructed, considering the end of life impacts of materials used within- while architects, engineers and designers are able to choose the most sustainable options for their project, manufacturers are able to optimize the impact of their products and market their carbon transparency, allowing consumers to educate themselves better and make informed decisions, therefore driving the ecological transition.

EPDs and Product Category Rules

On a more technical level, EPDs are created to satisfy all of the requirements of Product Category Rules (PCR). PCRs are the first step in creating an EPD and provide rules, requirements, and guidelines for a specific product category. They are a key part of ISO 14025 that enable transparency, also following international standards EN 15804 and ISO 21930. They take into account all stages of a product’s development and use from the production of its raw materials all the way to the end of its service life.

Environmental Product Declaration datasets may include resource consumption of energy, water and renewable resources, as well as emissions to air, water, and soil, and finally whether it can be recycled at the end of life, or shall be disposed of. This data is aggregated using multiple environmental impacts including contributions to climate change (carbon footprint), air, water, and soil pollution, and resource depletion.

To ensure assessments are consistent and quantifiable EPDs follow a Life Cycle Assessment methodology and use PCRs.

For example, when comparing the EPD for the same paper manufactured by 2 different providers, we see that the difference in total product emissions is substantial between the two manufacturers — mainly due to reduced emissions associated with purchase of electricity and steam. Because the second manufacturer procures green energy, it has reduced its carbon footprint in half compared to the first manufacturer. Green procurement, from buying renewable energy to choosing more environmentally-friendly inputs, can have a cascading effect on emissions produced along the production and the value chain.

Fair Comparison of Products

Unlike Type I ecolabels, an EPD does not judge products or imply that a declared product is environmentally superior to alternatives, and consumers are free to compare products and select them in the context of their design requirements. The standards and rules that an EPD must comply with ensure that products can be compared on a fair and equitable basis within their product category, by the end user based on their sustainability requirements.

This is important, because a material that requires minimal energy for its extraction and processing, while also generating a negligible amount of emissions when installed for use within its native region, may result in very high energy use and unprecedented emissions when it is transported to be used in another region – one with contrasting local or climatic conditions. Hence, something that seemed ‘sustainable’ at first would not have a suitable Environmental Product Declaration rating when used in another region; this is the kind of comprehensive information and analysis that EPDs are able to provide.

“At Alpin, as we seek to make every step of creating a building green, EPDs come in handy in Life Cycle Assessments where we need to select eco-friendly materials and those that have less of an impact on the environment. They are also used in our projects so credits can be targeted for LEED, BREEAM and other green building rating systems. EPDs are a true asset in the construction industry whose value just cannot be ignored,”
– Jourdan Younis, Managing Director at Alpin Limited.

Written by Sadaf Ghalib and Loukia Papadopoulos