LCAs, PCRs and EPDs it’s all in the name of transparency
Comparing the market cost of recyclable material to the cost of new raw materials ignores economic externalities – the costs that are currently not counted by the market. Creating a new piece of material, for instance, may cause more pollution and be less sustainable than recycling a similar piece of material, but these factors will not be counted in market cost. A life cycle assessment, (LCA) can be used to determine the levels of externalities and decide whether the recycling may be worthwhile despite unfavorable market costs.
A life-cycle assessment (LCA, also known as life-cycle analysis, ecobalance, and cradle-to-grave analysis) is a technique to assess environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product's life from-cradle-to-grave (i.e., from raw material extraction through materials processing, manufacture, distribution, use, repair and maintenance, and disposal or recycling). LCAs can help avoid a narrow outlook on environmental concerns by: Compiling an inventory of relevant energy and material inputs and environmental releases; Evaluating the potential impacts associated with identified inputs and releases; Interpreting the results to help make a more informed decision.
Manufacturers that offer LCA data to their stakeholders are offering a transparent view of their products environmental impact, and disclosing the good and the bad. Having an LCA is the only way for a manufacture to not only know the impact they are making on the environment, but more importantly to set goals for improvement.
Recently the USGBC opened the next draft version of the rating system for the 4th public comment. A new draft credit in the Materials and Resources category, MR Credit: Material Disclosure and Optimization now has many manufactures and trade associations exploring a new set of acronyms, PCR (product category rules) and EPD (environmental product declarations). The intent of this credit is to offer some clarity to different types of certifications (self-declared vs third-party certification and single attribute vs multi-attribute certifications). The credit offers the highest reward to ISO (International Standards Organization) compliant third-party (Type III) certifications, Environmental Product Declarations. An EPD requires an ISO compliant LCA.
To develop an EPD you must follow a set of rules or guidelines called a PCR (Product Category Rules). These rules state: product definition, material content, production process, LCA requirements, emissions, human toxicity, and others. One must understand that if manufacturers of similar product use different PCRs, their EPDs will be different, and you will not be comparing apples to apples. So as we move forward into these new claims of transparency, or in some cases “controlled transparency” don’t expect the market confusion to disappear and don’t expect to have all EPDs to be created equal.