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Why do we all need to have EPDs for products?

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Why EPDs are so important?

There’s no doubt of the importance of sustainability in the construction industry. In the Nordics especially, we are seeing many home and office building initiatives that favour a lower carbon footprint. Indeed, the requirements nowadays are becoming so strict that it is often mandatory to present proof of the carbon footprint reduction that will be made in the product. This proof comes in the form of Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). But what exactly are EPDs, and what do their use mean?
We reached out to Judith Masip Calle, Technical Support Specialist & Sustainability Responsible at Uponor for some answers and more on the subject of EPDs.
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So, who are you and what do you do?

- My name is Judith Masip. I’m an Electronic Engineer. I live in Barcelona and I’m responsible for sustainability at Uponor Iberia.

What are EPDs and what information can we get from them?

- They are documents where you can find indicators on any environmental performance from the product or the service that you are studying. They are based on the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). In them you will find information about the impact that this product has on the earth’s resources, like water, energy, etc. And this information will be for the whole life of the product, from the beginning, which means the construction of the material, the manufacturing and the transport, until the end of life of the product.
Regarding the information we can find, there is general information like the description, the manufacturer, the location of the manufacturer, the technical information. As well as that there is the specific information about the LCA with all the indicators for each step of the LCA. For example, the extraction of the materials or the transport. You can find all the indicators and also the primary energy used, i.e., renewable or non-renewable, if there was any fuel used for the product, if there were any dangerous materials used in the manufacturing of the components or materials used. And then you can find the specific environmental indicators like the Global Warming Potential (GWP). This information allows us to compare different products and the impact that they have on emissions into the atmosphere.
You can also find information on the impact on freshwater, the water deprivation. You can find out if that product is impacting the water resources we have. The same with the acidification potential. It will give you information if the product has any compounds that are precursors of acid rain. All that information can be found in an EPD.

What is the extent of the LCA? What period does it consider?

- It depends on the type of the EPD that you are doing. You can do different types of LCA. For example, you can have a cradle to gate LCA, which is the minimum that you can publish in an EPD, and it just covers A1 to A3 which means the extraction of materials and manufacturing. So that will be the minimum information LCA assessment you can find in every EPD. The next category is cradle to cradle, and is also includes C1 and C2, which is the end of life and the benefits after which are related to recycling, etc. And then you have the full life cycle assessment approach which is called cradle to grave and means the beginning to the end of life. So, the information you get in the LCA will depend on the type of EPD you are going to analyse.   

If I am a planner colleting the required materials for my project, is there a specific type of EPD that I should request? How do I choose?

- It depends on what is your goal towards that EPD. Sometimes you only need to fulfil a requirement for a greenscheme, and to just meet the requirement they only ask about having an EPD. They give you points for simply having it. Therefore, in that sense it doesn’t matter which EPD you have, any one will do. However, if you are an engineer or an architect and you are doing theLCA of the whole building and you want to have an assessment of the life of the building from beginning to end with all the materials installed in it, then maybe for you it would be more interesting to have a cradle to grave LCA. Perhaps the EPDs we are going to find most often are the cradle to cradle.

How standardised are the EPD formats? Is it easy to compare the information in them?

- There are many things that you need to take into account. The type of LCA, as we mentioned before, is one thing. But also, you need to consider if you have an EPD which is single done, that means one EPD for one manufacturer and one product; or you can have a group EPD, which is for similar products from the same manufacturer; or you can have an industry average EPD, which is where many companies have given information to the association and they put together an EPD with average data for a product. So that would be another thing to take into account when doing the comparisons, but in order to answer further, first I should explain a little more about the process of creating an EPD.
When creating an EPD, first of all you need to do a little bit of strategy and think what kind of LCA, what kind of EPD (single, group, etc), and then you choose a program operator. Nowadays there are 50 of these globally. Some are more international and more well know than others which might be more locally focused. Then, when you are choosing the program, you need to choose a PCR. These are the rules which are applied when you are doing the product EPD. If in Uponor, for example, we are doing the EPD of a pipe, we need to know if that pipe has rules that are going to tell us how we are going to do that EPD. If you have a PCR you can just take that and follow the rules. If not, you need to create that.
That’s part of the strategy. Then, once you have decided the PCR, the program operator and the kind of EPD, then you need to take the data. We need one year of data to do a LCA on a study, then you put all the data into these programs and they give you the LCA information.
We need to complete the report which the program operator is asking for, and then we need to send it to a verifier who will say if we have followed the rules correctly or not. When we get the OK, we are ready to publish and register the EPD.
If we go back to your question regarding different EPDs. First of all, if we are comparing different EPDs we should be sure that they are a similar type, i.e., single or group. Secondly, we should only compare EPDs that differ in no more than 1% of their materials, there is no sense to compare a plastic pipe with a metal pipe. And then you need to be sure that the PCRs that were used are the same. Finally, all the assumptions made by the manufacturers regarding their product should also be taken into account.

If you zoom in on an EPD, it might well say that the carbon footprint reduction is zero. Does this mean the process is not helping, or are there other indicators in the EDP that we should consider?

- I think all of the indicators are important. For me, the raw material indicator is important and tells us if you are using the earth’s raw materials or if you are using recycled materials from other industries. So that will also have an impact on the footprint. The water footprint is also very interesting. A product might have a low carbon footprint but a high water footprint. I cannot say which of those is more important. It will depend on the goal you have as the project manager or greenscheme manager. They need to do that thinking. They need to know which is the goal they are going to pursue. If they are going for a low carbon footprint they are going to focus on that, but if they are thinking about their water footprint, then that indicator will be more important.

You mentioned assessment schemes. Can you elaborate more on those?

- I can tell you about LEED and BREEAM, because those are the ones I am most familiar with. LEED gives you credit for merely having EPDs. They might ask you in your project to have twenty products with EPDs permanently installed from at least five different manufacturers. And that will automatically give you ‘points’ without analysis of if the EPDs are good or bad, just having them is enough. Their focus is rewarding the transparency of the project, because the first step of sustainability is having transparent data. Then we can analyse and consider if the findings are good or bad, it gives us scope for improvement. Furthermore, they credit you if you are using materials that have a low carbon footprint. So, you have the points first for having an EPD, and then if that EPD is good and has a low carbon footprint, they will give you points also for that.
In BREEAM it is similar. However, they give you more points if the product EPD is a ‘single’ rather than presenting an industry average. I.e., one product, one manufacturer. In general certificates give you points for having EPDs and then if you have materials that are improved in terms of carbon footprint, you will get more points for that. Greenschemes, for example, are not mandatory but companies may choose to do them as a requirement for investors.

‘One product - one manufacturer’ EPDs are clearly more valued. How valid or useful are the other group EPDs based on multiple products?

- Personally, I feel that groups EPDs are just about fulfilling a requirement. The problem is that there are not many manufacturers nowadays in the installations world that have EPDs. UPONOR is one of the exceptions. The problem that the architects face when doing a LCA is finding the data. When having the EPDs based on the industry average, if there is no other option, that is enough to go forward. However, for me that’s not a good situation. We should all have the EPDs for our products because that’s the only way to be strict with the LCA and that’s the only way to compare true data and to compare different products and choose which one is better for my sustainability goals.

If many EPDs are simply about having the certificate, how strict are the investors becoming in analysing the different types and categories of EPDs?

- In terms of the government in Spain, nowadays there are no requirements. It depends more on the city’s council. I understand that in the Nordics you are more advanced in that aspect. Oslo asks for EPDs at the tendering process. In southern Europe we have some organisations which are starting to require an LCA for a building to obtain construction certificates. They are not asking for EPDs but they do require LCAs so the project manager will need EPDs to do that LCA.
Another thing that is not yet mandatory, but it is already arriving in the Nordics, is that EPDs meet certain criteria. The thing is you have to rely more on the public councils and the cities. In the Nordics you have a better tradition of requesting EPDs in the tendering process, but in the south like in France you have this requirement for certain construction certifications and they ask you for a LCA. There is no direct requirement for EPDs, but they are asking for LCA and it is mandatory to have EPDs in order to do that.
In Spain we have the cities, Barcelona, Madrid, etc, which are making some requests in the public construction about materials, that they have a certain percentage of recycled materials or that the carbon footprint is considered. They are not mandatory, but meeting these requirements give you extra points which help win the tendering process. I think that for the public administration it is great because EPDs are the means to verify that the product you are giving them is going to fulfil the requirements that you are setting. And also, it is helping them to compare between two products or projects, and reward the project whose materials are better.
The European Commission doesn’t currently have regulation but there are some upcoming that will surely change that. The European Circular Economy Action Plan, the EU Product Environmental Footprint, LEVELS: which is a European framework for sustainable building. Sooner or later, we are going to face mandatory requirements.

IS there something else you would like to add, some advice for planners starting to be involved with EPDs?

- My advice is, start doing LCAs for all the projects because currently this is not a mandatory requirement, we are doing this simply because we have a commitment to sustainability. Because we need transparency and we need clear information to speak with our stakeholders, then this is a factor of time. As a manufacturer, we need time to do an EPD. At UPONOR for example, we have done this because we have made this commitment and we intend to be clear with stakeholders and we need to be ready for what is going to come. So, as this becomes mandatory, we need to be prepared. And waiting for something to be mandatory before you start doing it, is the wrong approach because then what you do will be rushed just to fulfil the minimum requirements. We need to go beyond that.
My advice to all the people involved in construction process is start today. These are things that take time and they are not things that are good to be done in a hurry.

Thank you Judith and thankyou Urbanistas for listening. This is the last episode of the current series, but we will be back after the summer break with more podcasts. See you next time.

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