Understanding the Impact

Jan. 26, 2018
Evaluating the environmental consequences of water products

About the author: Josh Jacobs is technical information and public affairs manager for UL LLC. Jacobs can be reached at [email protected].

When water products and sustainability are discussed in the same sentence, our minds immediately go to water savings.This is a natural place to start. Water is a resource that is a right for all and is more precious than most people realize. Some have even hypothesized that the next major global war could start over water rights. With this in mind, saving water is the best place to start when thinking about water products and sustainability, but the conversation should not end there.

Understanding Energy

Conservation is an important aspect of the environmental impact of the products we use in water conveyance and consumption. Programs like WaterSense make it easy to identify some of the water-efficient products on the market; however, water savings certainly is not the only aspect we should consider. What about the simple concept of embodied energy? How much energy was used in the production of one fixture or fitting? How much energy does an ozone generator use during its use phase? These are questions we can track and understand. They also can help us with our primary goal of saving water. As the U.S. Geological Survey states, in 2005, 349 billion gal of freshwater were withdrawn per day in the U.S. The largest use of that freshwater was thermoelectric production, accounting for 41% of freshwater withdrawal, so conserving embodied energy saves water, as well.

To understand how energy contributes to water consumption, we need to understand the overall impact that a product has on its environment. Life cycle analysis (LCA) is a tool widely used in the sustainable space, but it is the environmental space that adopted it. At its heart, LCA is an incredible business tool that enables manufacturers to take an in-depth look at their manufacturing processes, procedures, and delivery methodologies, as well as their supply chains and inputs.

A good LCA gives organizations a comprehensive look inside their business to identify opportunities for improvement. However, many of the products that an organization purchases or specifies are not going to have an LCA that the manufacturer can provide. It likely contains hundreds of pages with incredibly complex calculations and research, along with confidential information on how they run their business and compete in the marketplace. In other words, an LCA normally is not very leverageable.

Impact Declarations

A better way to understand some of the environmental impacts of the products you are purchasing is to use Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). EPDs are distilled snapshots of a product’s full LCA and impacts on environmental areas. Traditionally, these provide a review of seven impact areas:

  • Global warming potential;
  • Ozone depletion potential;
  • Photochemical ozone creation potential;
  • Acidification potential;
  • Eutrophication potential;
  • Depletion of abiotic resources (elements); and
  • Depletion of abiotic resources (fossil fuels).

These transparency tools show either an entire industry average impact of a type of product (an industrywide EPD) or a specific product’s impact (product-specific EPDs). They also show the boundaries of the information—from natural resource gathering for manufacturing to the end of product life, from when the material gets to a manufacturing facility to when it leaves, or from natural resource gathering for manufacturing to when the product leaves the manufacturing facility—and what performance and/or safety standards the products meet. This can be accomplished in approximately 20 pages.

To demonstrate commitment, an EPD should be produced in conjunction with a third-party organization, such as UL Environment, that verifies the information in the EPD is accurate per the LCA. EPDs do not guarantee that a product is environmentally friendly or sustainable, but they offer a third-party-verified look at the manufacturing impacts of that product.

Many industry associations and manufacturers are producing EPDs. You simply need to request to see them and then use them in your procurement procedures. These can be used throughout procurement, bidding and specification. EPDs are becoming readily available in numerous industries, including water products, and you can rely on the traditional third-parties and approved agencies that you have used for years in procurement. This will allow you to understand some of the main ways a product can impact the environment.

Many sustainability rating systems, codes and standards are now recognizing EPDs as a way to ensure people understand the environmental impacts of products. The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Rating System, National Association of Home Builder’s National Green Building Standard, ASHRAE 189.1, International Code Council’s International Green Construction Code, Green Globes, and the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method are some of the green building rating systems or codes where EPDs are recognized in material chapters. Many architects, designers and procurement professionals also are utilizing EPDs to help make choices when deciding between products for their projects.

With an increasing number of organizations looking to ensure their environmental impacts are as minimal as possible, and procurement being done based on environmental impact factors, the use of EPDs is somewhat obvious. Today, as a water-focused community, we can make a difference in multiple areas of sustainability by expanding the new tools we have in our toolbox. 

About the Author

Josh Jacobs

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