USGBC’s flawed pilot credits target PVC

Home News USGBC’s flawed pilot credits target PVC

by Bill Hall

In 2009, The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) started a pilot program to test new and innovative credits for potential permanent adoption in its 16- year-old Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating systems. LEED is the most popular green standard for buildings in the U.S. Almost from the creation of LEED, there has been a vocal faction within USGBC which has sought to de-select the use of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) building materials—which includes vinyl flooring and carpet with vinyl backing—through efforts to adopt LEED credits for not using PVC building materials. These efforts have been based on alleged single-attribute health concerns arising from infrequent accidental landfill fires involving PVC products that some claim may release minute amounts of dioxins and high dose animal studies involving phthalate plasticizers.

To address these issues, USGBC’s Technical and Scientific Advisory Committee (TSAC) undertook an exhaustive study beginning in 2002 to evaluate the basis for a PVC-related credit within LEED. It focused on studying the health and environmental attributes of PVC and non-PVC alternative products for siding, piping, resilient flooring and windows using life cycle analysis (LCA) and risk assessments. TSAC spent four years reviewing over 1,500 studies and hundreds of comments by interested parties and holding public meetings to hear comments and answer questions.

In February 2007, TSAC issued a 196- page “PVC Report.” It concluded, PVC was neither the best nor worst material across all the human health and environmental impact categories, and, depending on the product, a credit for avoiding PVC could lead to the use of non-PVC alternatives with worse health and environmental impacts.

As a result of these mixed results, TSAC determined material avoidance credits should be avoided so as to prevent LEED from inadvertently steering decision makers from replacing one “negative-impact material with another.” Instead, it encouraged developing credits to incentivize “the substitution of problematic materials with others that are demonstrably better with regard to environmental and human health impacts over their life cycles.”

In essence, TSAC concluded LEED should not use material avoidance credits unless the alternative is found to be demonstrably better, based on LCA. Despite those conclusions, last year the LEED Steering Committee approved two pilot credits that can only be fairly described as “PVC material avoidance credits.” The first, Pilot Credit 2: PBT Source Reduction: Dioxins and Halogenated Organic Compounds provides a credit for using materials manufactured without halogenated compounds (PVC), while the second Pilot Credit 11: Chemical Avoidance in Building Materials gives a credit for using materials not containing phthalates (many flexible vinyl products). Thus, both are directed toward avoiding the use of PVC.

USGBC recognizes an essential component in its pilot credit program is developing specific evaluation metrics to determine whether a pilot credit be permanently adopted in LEED. The evaluation criteria established for Pilot Credits 2 and 11 on their face are inadequate and incomplete. For USGBC to adopt a disfavored material avoidance credit, the PVC Report requires a much broader and comprehensive evaluation than is currently contemplated to show that alternatives are “demonstrably better.”

This evaluation needs to include:

  • Full and comprehensive LCAs that measure all recognized environmental parameters —not just subset random parameters (or those most favorable to the prod- uct) and not just human health effects, as currently contemplated by USGBC.
  • Safety attributes must be fully identified and considered so the most immediate priority—protecting consumers and users from accidents—is fully considered. For example, PVC is used for sheathing because of its superior fire resistance, a critical consideration in evaluating alternatives.
  • The performance specifications and characteristics, such as the length of the product’s life, and the relative costs of the competing products must be assessed. USGBC’s general evaluation criteria requires consideration of “environmental, social [and] economic” factors to determine whether a pilot credit yields the “same, better or worse outcomes.”

Overall, USGBC is moving down a path contrary to TSAC’s recommendations in the exhaustive PVC Report and could very well steer building decision makers to use non- PVC alternatives that are worse health and environmental performers, less safe, less durable and more costly than PVC products.

USGBC not only needs to revise the evaluation criteria but also abandon the pilot credits if not enough Pilot Credit 2 and 11 projects are undertaken to generate a sufficiently complete database to fairly assess whether the appropriate evaluation criteria have been satisfied.

The resilient flooring and other PVC market segments need to be actively engaged in ensuring USGBC uses a sound scientific approach and the right evaluation criteria, consistent with its own PVC Report, to determine whether Pilot Credits 2 and 11 should be permanently included in the LEED rating systems—which they should not based on everything we know at this time.

Bill Hall is a partner at Venable LLP in its environmental practice group and has represented RFCI for 25 years. Justin Curtis, a Venable associate, assisted in preparing this article.

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