Building products manufacturers push ‘green agenda’

The manufacturing process is one of the most significant links in the sustainable building chain, David Wheeldon writes.

THE manufacturing process has never loomed so large in the minds of those in the building business. Not that it was ignored in the past. It’s just that architects and builders have historically been focused on certain end-results: quality and cost. These days however, there are more things to consider: a whole life-cycle, which we call the ‘green agenda’.

The new green agenda means looking at every way a building product can conceivably impact on the earth. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the manufacturing process is one of the most significant links in the sustainable building chain.

Life-cycle assessment (or analysis), known as LCA, has become accepted internationally as the most complete and comprehensive method for assessing and comparing the environmental impacts of materials, products and services and providing the basis for ‘ecolabels’ and environmental product declarations.

As BlueScope Steel points out in its work on the subject, LCA consists of two components: inventory analysis and impact analysis. Inventory analysis involves summarising the material and energy flows for "a system of processes and activities that manufacture a product or achieve an outcome".

The analysis typically includes everything from the mining of resources, supply of energy, the manufacturing of the product, through to the use and disposal of the product. The ‘inventory’ that is produced lists the resources consumed and the emissions associated with the system.

Meanwhile, an impact assessment involves interpreting the significance of all the resources consumed and emissions determined in the inventory stage.

Interestingly, the Building Products Innovation Council (BPIC) — the peak body representing the building materials sector — has just completed a three-year project in partnership with the Federal Government to provide Australian life-cycle inventory data for building materials.

Named the Building Products Life Cycle Inventory, it will assist life-cycle assessment practitioners, architects, designers, engineers, builders, developers and regulators to more accurately assess the impact building products and buildings have on the environment.

Interest in LCA is growing rapidly in Australia with the support of governments, industry and consumer groups.

Cradle to Cradle is a multi-attribute eco-label that assesses a product’s safety to humans, which focuses on using safe materials that can be disassembled and recycled as technical nutrients or composted as biological nutrients. It takes a comprehensive approach to evaluating the sustainability of a product and the practices employed in manufacturing the product. The materials and manufacturing practices of each product are assessed in five categories: Material Health, Material Reutilisation, Renewable Energy Use, Water Stewardship, and Social Responsibility.

The Future Manufacturing Innovation Industry Council (FMIIC) is now collaborating with the Built Environment Industry Innovation Council and the Information Technology Industry Innovation Council to explore opportunities in manufacturing for a sustainable built environment. 

Individual sectors within the built environment family have also been subject to the evolving regulatory framework. For example, Australia’s assessment for environmentally-friendly flooring changed in July 2010, enabling the recognition of the green achievements of flooring manufacturers. Of course, the opportunity has not been lost on manufacturers.

At the time of the flooring-related changes, Polyflor marketing manager Peter Bates said: "The whole of a product’s life-cycle is now taken into account in assessing how green the product is without the favourable weighting given to products that are made from renewable resources, which in some instances require more energy to produce and maintain."

Earlier this year Polyflor claimed the place as the first commercial flooring organisation in Australia and New Zealand to achieve Ecospecifier’s Green Tag life cycle assessment (LCA) certification.

David Wheeldon is editor of Manufacturers’ Monthly sister publication, BPN.

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