The Shortcomings of Single Indicators used in Eco-claims

Date: 17.11.2011

Historically the eco-benefits of products have been based on those characteristics that we easily measured and clear cut. There are many of them, 'recycled content', 'recyclable',' locally made', 'non-toxic' etc. However, when Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is used to determine the actual Whole of Life (WoL) impacts of products with all aspects of their life cycle taken into account the single indicator approach to identifying eco-preferred products starts letting us down as interesting trade-offs become able to be quantified. Using single indicator results we have never been able to compare dislike products to determine which is the better overall product from an environmental point of view. LCA combined with weighted scores allows us to better see the overall eco-preferredness of products and compare dissimilar products with the same function on a single scale to generate a rating and ISO 14024 compliant ecolabel certification system such as the Global GreenTag® by Ecospecifier.

The world first ecospecifier global GreenTag® product rating system is an ISO 14024 compliant Type 1 ecolabel underpinned by LCA with Standards modelling around and developed from the EU Reach and Ecolabel Standards and was introduced into Australia by Ecospecifier in February 2010.

It has been adopted by some of the biggest manufacturing names on the planet such as Polyflor, InterfaceFLOR, Herman Miller, BASF, Tarkett, Armstrong Floors and Ceilings, BASF, Verosol, Bolon, Tretford, Knauf, Kingspan and many others due to its unique features and finally delivers a simple, easy to understand method for anyone to choose eco-products. For building products, it also connects products through into a BIM capable future.

The GreenTag® logo simply shows how the product scores by using Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum colours to indicate grades. Bronze denotes an Entry Level eco-product that has been assessed to be, as a minimum, healthy and non-toxic. Platinum is an exceedingly high benchmark that denotes a World Leading eco-product and contains no chemicals at any stage of production that affect health or ecology and have the lowest ecological impact of any products possibly even creating net positive impacts with high social outcomes.

Figure 1 GreenTag™ Logo Series Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum

If you want to know more information about the product, a food label type Product Scorecard provides individual scores for key Sustainability Criteria; Design Synergy, Health and Ecotoxicity, Biodiversity, Life Cycle Analysis, Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GGEs) and Corporate Social Responsibility. The scores in each of these criteria are then added together and weighted to provide a single GreenTag® EcoPOINT indicator. This is a number between 1 and -1 where 1 equals the impact of a worst case business as usual product fulfilling the same function and -1 equals 100% net positive impacts in specific categories such as GGEs and Biodiversity. So the smaller the number the lower the impact and the better the product!

CASE STUDY: Comparative LCA of Flooring Products

The Global GreenTag® system has certified many flooring products in since its launch. Recently an Ecospecifier staff  member was presenting the GreenTag® to a prominent architect. In the discussion and presentation, the architect noticed that two flooring products had GOLD Certification and similar EcoPOINT Scores. He also noticed that one was a recycled rubber flooring and the other ostensibly a virgin PVC. Based on his pre-learnt and understandable bias learnt over many years toward favouring 'recycled content' he posed the question, 'how can a product made from recycled tyres, be approximately equivalent to a virgin PVC flooring?' As a result of his misguided understanding of what actually constitutes an eco-preferred product he went on to question the veracity of the GreenTag system itself.

Fortunately, the Ecospecifier Team member had a good understanding of the LCA results from both products and was able to explain the results as follows:

A)           Recycled Rubber Flooring

  1. The recycled tyres have to be collected from many locations, over large distances using generally small trucks to bring them to a central point in each State where they are then collected by semi trailed for an interstate trip to the factory. Small trucks are very energy inefficient and generate large amounts of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GGEs);
  2. It takes a lot of energy to shred the tires into small crumbs and powder;
  3. The recycled rubber product uses almost 18% petroleum based polyurethane binders- these use poly-iso-cyanate and MDI based pre-cursors and both of these in the pre-mixed forms are potent carcinogens and so have OH&S risks that required close monitoring. While there are no significant health issues for normal healthy people associated with these products once cured, LCA counts these components and fossil fuel resource demands.
  4. Being made in Australia, its manufacturing is based on relatively high GGE based electrical energy sources from predominantly coal fired power stations;
  5. The rubber flooring has a relatively higher maintenance requirements, but still low overall.

B)           Virgin PVC Flooring

  1. The virgin PVC flooring comprises only 17% PVC and uses the latest low toxicity stabilisers and plascticiser;
  2. PVC contains a lower embodied carbon factor than Polurethane;
  3. It is made in a UK factory that is partially powered by waste hydrogen as a by-product of chemical processing and uses grid energy from a grid with nuclear power lowering the GGEs even further;
  4. It contains a large component of ground mineral filler that is recovered from waste emissions of other industrial processes;
  5. The pre-sealed PVC flooring has a relatively lower maintenance requirements, but still low overall.

Hence once each product is scored against the Sustainability Assessment Criteria; Health and Eco-toxicity, GGEs, Biodiversity, WoL LCA and Corporate Social Responsibility and the scores weighted in accordance with the GreenTag® Standard requirements, they actually score quite similarly.

While BREEAM® uses LCA based BRE Green Guide ratings, the use of single indicator materials credits in Green Building Ratings Tools, like LEED®, and Green Star® are likely to make way for LCA based credits in the near future as the realisation of the shortcomings of single indicators are finally realised by the GBCs. Both LEED® and Green Star® have announced LCA based ratings for products in 2012 with LEED® already having published its Pilot Certified Materials credit.

Flooring LCA Conclusions

Actually what has come out of the numerous LCAs now undertaken under the GreenTag® system is that over the WoL of a flooring product, the biggest single eco-impact and potentially biggest health impact is the cleaning and maintenance operations life phase. Products that have the lowest maintenance requirements and least impact cleaning requirements are more than likely to have the best green outcomes.

David Baggs FRAIA  is the Chairman and Technical Director of Ecospecifier Global and President of the Australian Life Cycle Assessment Society. He is a multi-award winning chartered eco-architect and sustainability consultant with over 30 years experience in green buildings and products.

Back to News & Events List