Is A Little Competition A Good Thing ?

Tree of Green Hearts blowing away
The “green hearts” are in a tizzy about recent developments in green certification systems, as the General Services Administration announced that it will give the federal agencies it oversees a choice of green building certification systems. Because there was already some conflict and tension between the plastics, chemicals and timber industries with the proposed new standards for LEED v4, the news is being met with suspicion of behind the scenes manipulation and lobbying to ease the standards these industries were being called upon to meet.

The “new guy” on the block is the Green Building Initiative’s “Green Globes 2010” system. Still remaining a significant force is the US Green Building Council’s 2009 standards for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).
LEED vs Green Globes

I am an environmental skeptic by nature. And it is not lost on me that this decision by the GSA is being met by the more hard-core environmentalists as a ruse. Where there is smoke, there is usually fire and there are a crowd of environmentalists yelling “FIRE !!” on this one. Still, I also try to bring a balanced perspective to any controversial issue, generally finding that there is wisdom in choosing a middle way – not on the fringes of extremism, either direction.

At issue is whether the latest authorization also yields the perception that “the Green Globes rating system aligns slightly better than LEED with federal requirements for new construction, while LEED remains the most compatible green building rating system for existing buildings.” for those are the exact words used in the report.

Treehugger.com in their article about this, shares the following comparison of 3 green certification standards prepared by the Dept of Energy –

Dept of Energy Comparison Chart

Dept of Energy Comparison Chart

Showing there is fuel for that fire is the official governance of the Green Building Initiative organization – “GBI is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. GBI has 53 Members and Supporters and 9 Industry Affiliates. In addition, GBI has over 10,000 ‘Friends of GBI’, formerly known as Associate Members who receive the quarterly newsletter and other information from GBI. There is a Board of Directors, Executive Director, executive staff, and Industry Advisory Board. Decisions of the Industry Advisory Board are non-binding.” I suppose that last bit is supposed to reassure those of us who have reason to be skeptical about what is driving the new competitive kid on the green block.

It probably is not a coincidence that there is a strong foundational perspective in GBI that derives from Hubbell Communications motto – “We understand how public policy and perceptions are created and we use the power of communications to shape both.” (gee, the President of Hubbell Communications – Wade Hubbell, is also the founder of GBI.) Hubbell proudly displays one of their successes on their website, a car manufacturer’s association who had a “legislative problem in Oregon.”-“In just a few days, we had a fresh coalition identity, a campaign website, and a strong social media presence.” Hmmm, there does seem to be a bit of smoke and mirrors going on with GBI and the Green Globes (green washing ?, anyone ?).

After Ward Hubbell left his position as a PR exec at Louisiana Pacific, he received startup capital from the lumber industry for the purpose of establishing a green standard that did not give points to FSC certified lumber (are you smelling it now too ?). In 2006, The Forest and Paper Association told the Wall Street Journal that “Green Globes is much more wood-friendly than LEED”. (Ahhhh, can you see that smoke rising from its source now ?) There is not even an attempt to distance Hubbell Communications from the Green Building Initiatives – they operate out of the same building. How convenient and eco-friendly !!! Fewer carbon emissions.

Smoke Rising from a Forest

Then there is the board of directors of the GBI. It includes a couple of representatives of Dow Chemical, the Vinyl Institute, the Resilient Floor Covering Institute, Solvay, a chemical company, a communications director for Weyerhaeuser, among others. According to Treehugger.com – “Two of the most contentious issues facing the green building industry are lumber certification and the safety of products made from PVC and vinyl. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative has done a tremendous job of attacking LEED, and convincing politicians that FSC is somehow foreign and unamerican; The Chemical industry has politicians writing letters to the GSA complaining that LEED will kill jobs. Now the GSA has a report in their hands that claims ‘the Green Globes rating system aligns slightly better than LEED with federal requirements for new construction’.”

The Vinyl Institute logo
I already knew the background story from Plastics News (a plastics industry trade publication that I receive for our business which recycles a variety of plastics). I knew that the plastics industry as a whole was very unhappy that vinyl was coming under fire. Our business is also deeply concerned about the risks to the environment and human health posed by the production of polyvinyl chloride. The best thing that we can think of, to do personally, is lock it up (after its initial production and use, to recycle it, rather than allow it to go into a landfill). It is our hope that someday, there will be little to none of this in our environment and that better alternatives will have been found.

In the Nov 18, 2013 issue of Plastics News they give the story of the GSA decision, to allow the Green Globes certification system to be used by federal agencies as an alternative choice to the previous dominance by LEED, front page top billing. In an attempt to appear balanced and impartial, they quote The Sierra Club’s, Jason Grant (a member of their Forest Certification and Green Building Team), allowing him to express his suspicions in print, regarding the influence of certain industries on Green Globes standards. “Green Globes certainly goes easy on those industries.” He is further quoted as saying “Apparently the chemical and plastics industry is willing to invest a lot to prevent the truth from coming out.”

The Society of the Plastics Industry is concerned that LEED v4 will encourage its applicants not to use certain materials such as PVC or the fluoropolymers used in wiring and cable. Of additional concern to producers and manufacturers throughout that spectrum are points given to building products that have environmental product declarations (EPDs) and for the firm’s willingness to disclose their ingredients and the sources of raw materials. Wouldn’t you want to know those things ? That the chemicals that you are being exposed to, are not going to cause cancer in you, down the road. One could suspect the prevalence of cancer in our modern society has some of its roots, in the exponential growth of a wide range of new chemical combinations allowed into our lives. But then, you might think I’m being unfair . . . and biased in my blog.

To their credit the USGBC is taking it in stride. Lane Burt, their policy director counters the fears of industry by affirming – “We don’t have language in LEED v4 that says – “Don’t use this stuff.” And acknowledges that has been a significant misunderstanding. Yes, there was a draft, that considered giving points for the avoidance of certain materials, but the council decided to shift towards a more positive perspective, a “green-list approach”.

An environmentalist would be hard pressed to fault the spirit of the proposed LEED v4 standards – credits for life-cycle analysis of materials, product transparency and picking those products that haven’t been extracted in a way that’s environmentally destructive. The Sierra Club’s, Jason Grant, was quoted in Plastics News as saying of v4 – “In general, what it rewards is higher levels of transparency than existed in the past about what chemicals are found in significant quantities in building products.” He feels that knowledge of “… chemicals that might be carcinogenic or mutagenic or endocrine disruptors” is some important information, that people have a right to know; and that profit motives should not be subverting that disclosure.

SOURCES, additional reading – information for this blog came from

Plastics News – “Feds given green light to LEED competitor” by Catherine Kavanaugh

Treehugger.com – “LEED Bashing: Government Study Finds ‘Equivalence’ Between LEED and Green Globes” by Lloyd Alter

LINKS

Hubbell Communications – http://www.hubbellcommunications.com/

***

Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer

***

Advertisements

Plastics – Under Eco Pressure

McDonald's Polystyrene Coffee Cup

McDonald’s Polystyrene Coffee Cup

We follow the plastics industry news closely. Our first recycled materials came from plastics feedstocks. We did not cause it to exist, so in an interesting way, we are not closely aligned with the plastics industry but it is because of them, that we can perform the service that is the foundation of our business. Plastics are not the only material we produce – there is also rubber and most recently cork (and the fact that it is a naturally growing tree, has been one of it’s deepest appeals to us personally).

The first plastics were derived from organic cellulose materials in the mid 1800s and made possible the first flexible photographic film used for still photography and motion pictures. Formaldehyde and milk protein combinations were explored next. Humanity has had a long love-hate relationship with plastics.

Tucker Tunnel / VersaTech Geofoam

Tucker Tunnel / VersaTech Geofoam

Polystyrene was first discovered in 1839. Generally, I have considered it a “problem” because it wasn’t easy to recycle it. However, large scale polystyrene recycling has been occurring in my own community in recent times. Only the very white and non-printed kinds can be recycled here but that includes those big bulky pieces often arriving with new computers for their protection in shipping. VersaTech of Fredericktown, MO supplied over 3,300 blocks at 38” x 50.75” x 192” each for just the first phase of a project to fill the Tucker Tunnel in St Louis MO. The tunnel was constructed in 1931 by the Illinois Terminal Railroad to alleviate traffic congestion and facilitate the transportation of goods and materials. The walls of the tunnel had become so unstable that they threatened a collapse of the roadway and tall buildings above it. The tunnel had also become a base for some of St Louis’ homeless population. VersaTech’s blocks are filling and stabilizing the tunnel and as a result, the spaces above it.

McDonald's Clamshell

McDonald’s Clamshell

In the late 1980s, led by the efforts of the Environmental Defense Fund, McDonald’s phased out the use of it’s clamshells, which were the packaging for it’s sandwich products. Under public pressures, McDonald’s switched from the polystyrene clamshells to paper-based wraps for its sandwich packaging, providing a 70-90% reduction in sandwich packaging volume, reducing landfill space consumed, energy used and pollutant releases over the lifecycle of the package. However, making environmentally sound choices is neither simple, clear-cut nor certain. There are always trade-offs – the cloth vs disposable diaper dispute, or the paper vs plastic grocery bag choice. When paper is involved, we’re talking trees, or in the best case recycled paper, but the FDA does not allow recycled content to touch food products directly. Still, innovative methods of embedding recycled content, and enveloping these in virgin materials, are evolving in response, as a solution.

Now, thanks to efforts by the “As You Sow” organization started in 2011, McDonald’s will switch the hot beverage cups in all of their restaurants to double-walled fiber alternatives. With more than 14,000 locations in the United States alone, its impact is likely to extend globally to all major McDonald’s markets. Yet, the choice is a sobering reflection that 58 billion paper cups are thrown away every year. This equates to 20 million trees being cut down and 12 billion gallons of precious water used in processing. Styrofoam cups degrade at a glacial pace. Even 500 years from now, the foam coffee cup you used this morning will still be sitting in a landfill. And polystyrene has become a large problem for marine environments. The material breaks down into small pellets that are mistaken for food by some marine life, such as birds and fish, often causing death. So, for environmentalists wondering about a better yet choice, try relying on a reusable, washable mug every day for a whole year.

Still, waste and such obvious issues are not the only problem with polystyrene. The EPA released a draft rule looking for safer alternatives to the flame-retardant chemical HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane) used in polystyrene production for building insulation. The EPA is exploring a more proactive response than simply listing chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act, indicating that they may pose a concern. Recently, with news of some dispute between the US Green Building Council’s proposed LEED modifications (that would have offered credits for avoiding PVC) and the plastics industry as a whole (especially the significant players in PVC pipe and Vinyl Window interests), the EPA is also taking a look at a standard, even if justified by business competition concerns, obstructionist argument of limiting the release of what is termed as “confidential business information”. Environmentalists have a good reason to be concerned that CBI claims could hide chemicals that might cause deep concerns.

The EPA is tightening policies for CBI claims and declassifying unwarranted confidentiality claims, challenging companies to review their existing CBI claims to ensure that they are still valid and providing easier and enhanced access to a wider array of information. These decisions on the part of the EPA are friendly to the intentions of the USGBCs requests for more transparency regarding the content of certain building materials, when considered for LEED points. It is not surprising that the EPA has felt intense opposition and lobbying efforts from the chemical and plastics industries, as has the USGBC.

A report on the concerns regarding HBCD in polystyrene insulation production has found 2 viable flame-retardant alternatives to HBCD for use in expanded and extruded PS foam insulation, applicable with currently used manufacturing processes. The EPA has been motivated by indications of persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic characteristics associated with the chemical, HBCD. One alternative, a butadiene styrene brominated copolymer is already in commercial production in the US. Even though its long-term behavior in the environment isn’t entirely known, its characteristics indicate a strong reason to view it as having a low impact on any health or environmental concerns. Specifiers generally seek to avoid a known potential for undesirable consequences with the decisions that they make for the built environment.

Our company has struggled with our own concerns regarding one of the recycled plastics products that we offer known as Flexisurf. We pulled it entirely off the market, shortly after producing a large batch of samples for our market, because of our growing concern about this plastic in general, but mostly due to the impacts of its initial production. We have returned it to our product offerings because it is a positive response to the currently unavoidable presence of PVC materials in the form of high-volume production waste (from roofing membranes and automotive upholstery scraps), since we did not the cause the actual manufacture of the PVC material. Flexisurf creates a very durable and easy to maintain flooring and surfacing material, while keeping PVC out of landfills and away from the potential of entering groundwater. Sometimes, even the most environmentally aware, make difficult choices with no clear-cut “best” alternative. We seek to do the best that we know how, with the knowledge that we have, at the present time – and we never stop learning as much as we can. We are learning all the time and have no expectation of that necessity ending because the issues are always complex.

***

Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer
***