Wayne Trusty
Wayne Trusty

As Wayne Trusty prepares for his Greenbuild 2012 session on life cycle assessments and environmental product declarations, he’s understandably anxious about whether he can impart what business and LEED users must understand in a mere 20 minutes.

“Just getting through the ‘what and how’ of LCA is tough to do in the first 10,” says the 70-year-old economist-turned-building-industry-consultant who helped pioneer the process of documenting a product or system’s environmental impact in the early 1990s. Occasionally, he’ll stop the conversation to make a mental note about another milestone. “I have to make sure to mention that.”

But he also wants to dedicate time to those milestones on the horizon, only now coming into focus because of the groundwork laid by Trusty and his contemporaries.

The next step in the evolution of environmental transparency, he says, are EPDs, and ideally declarations that can be articulated in a nutrition-label-like form instead of the 20-page tomes in which they’re currently produced. “That’s not very helpful at a business level,” he says. “It would be great if you could just scan one of those (quick reference or QR) codes to get more information.”

First things first: Getting companies to create and publish Type III EPDs for their products—the ones based on third party-verified LCA data that cover a full range of impacts—has been a problematic task to date that Trusty says can’t be ignored for long. “LCA is coming into the next version of LEED, both from a whole-building and individual products level, along with EPDs,” he says. “They will quickly become a competitive necessity.”

LEED’s lead, he says, is likely to inspire a wave of federal, state, and perhaps even local governments requiring similar declarations in their purchasing policies. “EPDs have been developed internationally for years,” says Trusty, pointing to developments in Europe, Japan, and even countries such as Malaysia where LCAs and EPDs are required or supported by governments. “Right now, the U.S. and Canada are playing catch-up.”

But, he says, we’re not as far behind as the 30,000-foot view might indicate. “There are a number of large (building products) companies that have been doing LCAs for their various business divisions and products,” he says, albeit primarily for internal use as a quality control tool. “They can readily translate that data to an EPD.”

Less equipped are smaller (and often entrepreneurial) manufacturers who lack the resources to develop LCAs that feed EPDs, thus threatening their competitiveness.

To help them, Trusty supports trade associations of various product categories initiating EPDs for their member manufacturers, creating a baseline for the category (if not specific brands) that will pass muster and amortize the cost.

“From there, it’s not a huge step for a specific manufacturer to recognize that their products are better that the industry average,” he says, and make an effort to invest in a brand-specific EPD to prove it.

Despite of (or perhaps because of) his experience with LCAs and EPDs, Trusty also recognizes their limits. Beyond the metrics in the consensus ISO 21930 rules for building product EPDs are, “a whole host of things we’d like to measure, but aren’t as easy to get at with an acceptable degree of certainty,” he says, such as variables affecting biodiversity and human health.

For the same reason, he’s also wary of going beyond B2B and B2C declarations based on a “cradle-to-gate” LCA, requiring analysis of a product’s end use, including maintenance. “There’s no way to know how someone is going to use a 2x4 or a bag of concrete once it leaves the factory,” he says. “I don’t see a lot of consumer-level building product EPDs for that reason.”

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