6 December 2012 – Even from the distant shores of San Francisco we’ve managed to upset the PVC people in Australia. It happens we wrote about the new version of LEED, the US Green Building Council’s rating tool that, in its latest iteration, version 4, wants to “reward transparency in material specification and avoidance of chemicals of concern”.
The Vinyl Council in Australia, which represents the PVC industry, somehow thought this article might reflect badly or unfairly on the Australian situation, which allows up to two credits for PVC, and has sent us a stern letter. More of that below.
USGBC at war
In the US all hell has broken loose. The PVC industry has massed behind the American Chemical Council and lobbied members of Congress to stop the US government having anything to do with LEED. Forty have already signed up to the campaign.
As you might know, governments kick-started the green transformation in Australia and they’ve been critical in the US as well.
The USGBC’s president Rick Fedrizzi threw down the gauntlet at the massive Greenbuild conference in November and challenged the chemical industry and pals to “bring it on”.
The Healthy Buildings Network is a long time campaigner against PVC and other questionable substances that crowd out our living and working spaces.
At Greenbuild 2012 in San Francisco in November HBN board member and LEED fellow Penny Bonda, video crew in tow, surveyed manufacturers and members of the American Chemistry Council, “a trade association that spends over $10 million annually to advance its federal lobbying efforts, to target LEED,” Bonda writes in HBN.
The results were not pretty, or watch the video or read the whole story, Reflections on Transparency — or not
“I’ve been called the ‘mother of green interiors’”, Bonda says, so it’s no surprise she takes offence at the “unwillingness of these companies to even discuss the issue, while their trade association wages such a brutal campaign against LEED in their name”.
Healthy Buildings Network
In October Healthy Buildings Network executive director Bill Walsh said not enough light was being cast on what was happening behind the scenes at the USGBC Council moves forward on its “most important innovation in a decade”, despite “cutthroat opposition from the chemicals and plastics industries”.
Writing on the HBN website Walsh says the credits specifically reward the use of the new Health Product Declaration, “an unprecedented open standard format for building product disclosure that has already earned widespread support across the building industry, including building products manufacturers”.
“Should these credits be approved by vote of the membership early next year, they would establish a level of product transparency unrivaled in any other economic sector.”
In the Huffington Post, USGBC President and chief executive officer Rick Fedrizzi referred to: the “scoundrels…who attempt to savage a mountain of scientific evidence in favor of obfuscation and innuendo…[i]n their effort to protect a status quo that is good for them but not so much for the rest of us”.
Walsh makes it clear Fedrizzi is talking about the American Chemistry Council, “which have used those same tactics for over 30 years to frustrate effective implementation and reform of our nation’s profoundly inadequate chemical regulations”.
“The vinyl industry didn’t ‘protest’ a LEED credit proposed in 2001
to reward reduced use of vinyl. It waged war against it.
“By 2005 it was financing a competing greenwash building standard known as GreenGlobes to undermine market support for the then fledgling LEED system. This was done in alliance with the timber industry, as part of its decade-long campaign to weaken LEED credits that favor FSC-certified wood.
“This past summer, in response to a proposal for a voluntary credit to reduce modest quantities of toxic chemicals in buildings, the American Chemistry Council went for the jugular. It ‘protested,’ if you will, with an army of Washington DC lobbyists deployed to choke off the USGBC’s revenue from federal and state government agencies who build to LEED standards, and, get this, launched yet another bogus coalition to lobby against high performance building standards.”
A generational divide – between an ethical future and “cigarette”science”
“The USGBC is at the centre of a generational divide in business between 21st century manufacturers who share the values of their customers and seek to minimize everyone’s exposure to avoidable toxic hazards, and the retrograde cigarette-science tactics of Big Chem.
“Some companies, like BASF, Dow and DuPont, are playing both sides of the table, burnishing their brands with USGBC memberships, while financing and directing their trade association’s campaign to destroy the USGBC brand.”
Now for Australia
Sophi MacMillan, chief operating officer, Vinyl Council of Australia wrote to The Fifth Estate in response to our original article on the US scenario.
The last time we wrote about PVC in Australia the Vinyl Council had issued a media release with distracting claims about the various carbon footprint of PVC and various other materials including cereal., when the issue at hand is toxic substances that can produce cancer and other dreadful illnesses and diseases. (This is the kind of argument by confusion and non-sequitur that makes any other missive from that source destined for maximum scrutiny.)
Vinyl Council letter
In the letter headed local PVC/vinyl industry long supported transparency, Sophi MacMillan says:
“Your article last week [15 November 2012], ‘Chemical companies, PVC/vinyl, fighting disclosure of toxic materials in LEEDS’ inadequately explained the context of the US chemical industry’s concerns about LEED v4 and by omitting any reference to the Australian context, may give the wrong impression about the local PVC/vinyl industry.
“The vinyl industry in Australia understands the concern and suspicion consumers may have about the health and environmental impacts of products and their constituents and the need for greater transparency. For this reason, signatories to the Australian PVC industry’s Product Stewardship Program have long been publicly committed to open disclosure.
“This commitment requires signatories to provide general information on the additives used in their PVC products or components to stakeholders upon request [emphasis though is ours]. This will include a list of any hazardous substances intentionally added. Compliance to this and the other program commitments is measured and audited annually and publicly reported.”
Relying on a request for information to disclose all ingredients assumes a level of knowledge and sophistication that may be beyond regular builders and other users of PVC.
GBCA co-founder Ché Wall who recently contributed an article addressing PVC and related issues said that making components available “on request” showed a “complete lack of volunteering of the information”.
Wall says: “It puts the onus on someone else first to understand the language; to ask the right questions and clearly you have to assume [the vinyl industry’s] environmental credentials are not front and centre of their marketing.
“Suggesting you can access information is very different to an open data mandate.”
MacMillan (in a subsequent clarification):
“We refer to ‘when asked’ because it is in addition to the product specification information more routinely provided by manufacturers, and under the Stewardship Program commitment.
“There is legislation, regulation, standards, material safety data sheets, industry practices and our Product Stewardship Program commitments, all of which provide information about what raw materials are, or are not used in PVC products. Yet some stakeholders/consumers may still wonder what they are not being told, so our Product Stewardship Program signatories commit to tell them when asked the ‘list of ingredients’ for the product(s) concerned.”
MacMillan (as the main letter continues):
“The article’s main error was reporting that the American High Performance Building Coalition is creating its own building rating system. AHPBC has clearly stated that it is neutral on rating systems and it is not intending to add to the plethora of rating tools already operating in the US (such as LEED, Green Globes, International Green Construction Code, ASHRAE 189, Energy Star). A quick visit to the group’s home page would have revealed that the AHPBC is:
“…committed to promoting performance-based energy efficiency and sustainable building standards We support the development of green building standards through consensus-based processes derived from data and performance-driven criteria.
“We support the common objective of improving energy efficiency and environmental performance in buildings. The purpose of the coalition is not to endorse or oppose any particular green building rating system.”
The AHPBC may not be a rating system or a standard, but claims that the council promotes “sustainable building standards” and “environmental performance” suggests criteria must be met to be a member.
Critics say this “muddies the waters”. USGBC president Rick Fedrizzi’s challenge at his Greenbuild plenary address is that any group that makes a claim to sustainability or environmental performance, “prove it”.
“AHPBC’s essential message, however, is that the LEED credit development process is not consensus-based or performance-driven and needs to be fixed.
“LEED is considered a standard and standards need to be developed according to true open, consensus processes, along the lines of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), ISO, etc, particularly if they are to be adopted by government. This means inclusion of all relevant stakeholders.”
Consensus-based and “performance-driven” criteria from participants with vested interests in products that may not be healthy or environmentally sound are far from a guarantee of strong environmental outcomes.
USGBC founder David Gottfried recalls in his memoir, From Greed to Green, that three members of ANSI fought tooth and nail to stop the first standard for green building from banning smoking. He later discovered these three were on the tobacco industry’s payroll.
“LEED credit ideas can be proposed by USGBC member companies at any time, whether or not the proponents have adequate technical expertise. The lack of understanding of material science has been glaringly obvious in the development of a number of credits and ecolabel standards both in the US and here. Such an ill-informed approach does not, at the end of the day, deliver a better outcome for the environment or human health.”
Issues of scientific merit are always up for debate. See the arguments of climate deniers and also the tactics of the chemical industry in The New York Times article Big Chem, Big Harm?
This article shows that the chemical industry has “blocked any serious regulation” of endocrine disruptors, such as bisphenol-A, better known as BPA, found in “everything from plastics to canned food to ATM receipts” and linked to breast cancer, diabetes, hyperactivity, aggression and depression in children.
“The chemical companies — like the tobacco companies before them — create financial incentives to encourage politicians to sit on the fence. So nothing happens,” the article says.
MacMillan on the Australian approach which has varied markedly from the US approach to PVC.
“This [US approach] is in significant contrast to the GBCA’s approach. GBCA took deliberate steps to engage with industry, seek technical experts to understand material issues and develop a best practice approach to drive real improvement.
In an article in The Fifth Estate in July 2010 (Interview: Romilly Madew – guiding the Green Building Council though new challenges) GBCA chief executive Romilly Madew acknowledged the better outcomes this achieves:
“Madew is adamant that a more collaborative approach [between the GBCA and industry] has brought positive change. She says this is particularly evident with the vinyls industry” the article reported.
“We both (the Vinyl Council and the GBCA) had to listen to each other” she is reported as saying. “Australia is leading in the dematerialising of plastics – making great progress in getting rid of toxins from the manufacturing process and we weren’t listening to them. They also recognised they needed to change”, she added.
“No material – including those derived from renewable sources – is inherently sustainable; it is how the material is managed and used that imparts impact. Life cycle assessments of PVC products – even the one commissioned by the USGBC – have consistently shown that the impacts of PVC products are not significantly worse than alternatives, and often better.
“Combining our local industry’s commitment to open disclosure with our approach to drive measurable best practice performance in terms of life cycle impacts, and specifiers can be assured of more certainty about the low life cycle impact performance of vinyl products than most of the “PVC-free” alternatives.
“And GBCA’s more open approach in dealing with industry succeeds in improving transparency and driving the delivery of better outcomes for the built environment.”
The Fifth Estate in another article reporting the decision to award two points for approved PVC use, GBCA’s awarding of points for the first time for PVC material, said:
“One point will be awarded where 60 per cent of PVC products (by cost) comply with best practice guidelines and two points where 90 per cent comply.”
The change is seen as surprising by some, particularly when PVC is banned in some areas of Europe and is being targeted by the US Environmental Protection Agency for investigation as detrimental to health.
One industry source who works closely with the GBCA expressed concern to The Fifth Estate that the GBCA’s call for public comment on the materials review had not been widely discussed or promoted, giving little time for response from the property industry or environmental groups. There had also been little discussion of the changes with internal GBCA experts.
The article also quotes Bill Walsh:
“The Healthy Building Network says that PVC has contributed a ‘significant portion of the world’s burden of persistent toxic pollutants and endocrine-disrupting chemicals – including dioxin and phthalates – that are now universally present in the environment and the human population’.
“According to Walsh, by not discouraging the use of materials such as PVC, green certification systems undermine the efforts of manufacturers trying to distinguish products that legitimately represent the leading edge of environmental health protection.
“One of the main concerns regarding PVC is the toxic emissions released in the case of fire. This has led to it being banned in some areas of Europe.
“The GBCA’s Robin Mellon says that while this is undoubtedly a concern, particularly in view of the increasing incidence of bushfires in Australia, the GBCA’s recent review concluded that PVC poses no more of a threat than many other materials when burnt, such as paints and furniture products. It concluded PVC should not be singled out.”
A statement from the GBCA
The GBCA said the reason two credits are now available in Green Star for use of best practice PVC is that previously “the substitution of PVC did not necessarily deliver an improved environmental outcome for the built environment, as the use of some non-PVC alternative materials did not always guarantee a better outcome”.
“In late 2007, the GBCA commenced an extensive and transparent stakeholder engagement process to review the PVC minimisation credit, which included a review of independent literature and data, as well as the involvement of an expert reference panel recruited from around the industry.
“A rigorous PVC literature review revealed that where international opposition to PVC remained it was based on historical industry practices which had led to unacceptable health risks and/or environmental impacts.
“These concerns did not take into account the significant achievements within the PVC industry in recent years, particularly in Australia and Europe, to reduce the environmental and human health risks previously associated with PVC building materials.
“In addition, these concerns did not reflect the findings of independent scientific assessments, as well as comparative risk and impact studies, between PVC and non-PVC alternative materials.
“The PVC literature review also found that, while there are still some challenges to be addressed, environmental and human health risks associated with PVC can be minimised by using best practices in the manufacturing and end-of-life management phases of the PVC lifecycle.
“As a result, the ERP developed the Best Practice Guidelines for PVC in the Built Environment, which identify the opportunities for environmental impact and health risk reductions in the PVC lifecycle. These guidelines also recognise some world-leading achievements of PVC manufacturers, particularly in the areas of resin, pipe, conduit and flooring, and can be viewed on the GBCA’s website.
“The Best Practice Guidelines for PVC in the Built Environment were first issued in April 2010, and involved an extensive consultation and feedback process with the wider industry. The Guidelines contain criteria addressing PVC manufacture, use and end of life. More information is available here: https://www.gbca.org.au/green-star/revised-green-star-pvc-credit/2716.htm
“You can always get very technical and say, it’s not as bad as that, but if you are serious [about being green] then there are things you should not prescribe.
PVC is now scheduled as a green product and it’s clearly not green. If it’s not green don’t give credit.
[In the US one key issue is] “for people to disclose the real impact of their product. The other is the whole notion about trade associations running campaigns against the Green Building Council.
It reminds me of the tobacco lobby. It’s all designed to confuse. You introduce a little bit of uncertainty into the science. There is often very selectively cited research.
As in most things there is good and bad, but with PVC there is more than enough evidence for people to take a precautionary approach.
See Walls’ recent article, Ché Wall on the USGBC: seizing moral and ethical purpose