16 February 2012 ­– The use of life cycle assessment in the building products industry has suffered a setback with the winding back of the Building Products Innovation Council from the end of this month.

While the BPIC board says there will be no impact on the Building Products Life Cycle Inventory launched last year by BPIC and government (see our earlier story on this), some life cycle assessment practitioners and industry sources who spoke to The Fifth Estate believe the move could undermine the database’s uptake.

Glenn Simpkin, chairman of BPIC and Boral’s divisional marketing manager, says BPIC is moving to a “lower cost model”, which would remove its administrative function. The BPIC website would be hosted by a third party.

But he insists the change would not impact on the building product life cycle database, saying the industry associations that make up BPIC would continue to maintain the BP LCI.

“The information in the database is owned by the members of BPIC and the individual associations are responsible for maintaining their own data,” Simpkin says.

The BP LCI, which contains life cycle environmental impact information on more than 100 building material categories, was launched early in 2011.

The project was funded by BPIC members in association with the federal Department of Industry Innovation and Scientific Research and conducted in partnership with the Australian Life Cycle Assessment Society and BRANZ.

The major contract suppliers to the project included Edge Environment and the CSIRO.

The BP LCI was expected to contribute to the larger scale sustainability initiative being developed by the Australian Life Cycle Inventory, or AusLCI, which takes into account other environmentally sensitive areas such as transport, water, agriculture and energy.

BPIC’s chief executive officer Ian Frame told The Fifth Estate his role would finish at the end of this month. Tim Edwards, who had worked closely on the BP LCI project for BPIC, finished up in his part-time role last December.

Frame said funding for projects such as the BP LCI was on the decline as a result of cost pressures in the manufacturing and construction sectors and the impact of the strong Australian dollar.

He points to recent closures of long standing building companies in NSW such as Kell & Rigby and Cosmopolitan Homes as a sign of the financial squeeze many companies face.

Manufacturers and industry associations were also under considerable pressure as a result of competition from cheaper imported products and other costs. Consequently, the focus on sustainability, including life cycle assessment, was compromised.

“Industry and government haven’t properly addressed the threats to Australian products as a result of the strong Australian dollar. There is an increasing number of non-compliant products coming into Australia and a great deal of greenwash going on,” Frame says.

“There is no doubt manufacturers are losing sales and are trying to survive so it is hard to be critical of them for reducing their commitment to areas such as life cycle assessment.”

Not well understood
Edge Environment managing director, Nigel Howard, says that while he was initially worried that the winding back of BPIC would undermine the building products life cycle database, his main concern is that it was not yet well understood by industry.

“One of the problems is that people haven’t realised what it is yet. We haven’t done a good enough job of explaining it and there’s work to be done there,” Howard says.

The real test of the database is whether LCA tools and labels make use of it, he says. This includes LCA tool developers such as GABI and SIMAPro, and eco certification schemes such as Good Environmental Choice Australia, or GECA, and Ecospecifier’s Green Tag.

Some tool developers and schemes had been put off by BPIC’s insistence that they must sign up to a set of protocols about how the data will be used before using the BP LCI data. To date around 400 organisations have signed up to the protocols.

Nigel Howard

“Signing up to the BPIC protocols is controversial to a number of people but it shouldn’t be an issue. For tool developers it can be a problem because they can’t guarantee how the end user of their software is going to use the data.

“With a bit of imagination I’m sure this can be resolved – basically Edge Environment will find a commercial solution to this,” Howard says.

One industry source who has been closely involved in the BP LCI project says there are still major inconsistencies in the database that must be resolved before LCA practitioners and labels will use it. These included the scope of data sets (cradle to gate or gate to gate), forms of measurement (linear versus mass) and use of unclear terminology.

Howard concedes there were still flaws in the database but says, given the massive scope of the BP LCI project, it has been a major achievement.

“If you ask vigorously competitive organisations to come together to provide sensitive data, there are going to be a few areas of difficulty. BPIC deserves a lot of recognition and praise for what they’ve done.

“There are still loose ends – it’s not perfect. There are some inconsistencies such as industry terminology not understood by others but we will be cleaning these up over the next few months.”

David Baggs

David Baggs, president of the Australian Life Cycle Assessment Society and chief executive officer of Ecospecifier, says that while the BPIC database has quality control issues that need to be corrected its main achievement has been to raise industry awareness of life cycle assessment.

“The most important and useful aspect of the BPIC database is it has got hundreds of inventories from manufacturers and got them interested in LCA. Without this data it would have cost 10 to 20 times more to access it for other databases. Aspects need improving but this will be low hanging fruit compared to the mountain we were facing without it.

“It was always going to be a compromise but it has focused the attention of manufacturers on this issue. It was an important project to lift our national LCA capability,” Baggs says.

One of the main issues, Baggs says, is there are inconsistencies in the way the data was compiled and expressed. Another issue is in Ecolabels using the data, the BP LCI data is expressed as industry averages whereas eco labelling systems such as Green Tag contain very specific product-related data and hence will typically use the data only as reference or baseline data.

Part of the problem is that the BP LCI data is expressed as industry averages whereas eco labelling systems such as Green Tag contain very specific product-related data.

“Sometimes average data is important, for example where generic material is used in manufacturing. Every LCA database has some average data but tries to minimise it. LCA practitioners and tool developers could make corrections to the data to make it useful for their systems but then it would become proprietary to them and not accessible to others,” Baggs says.

AusLCI contains product specific life cycle data in whole data sets connected to the necessary background data, thus providing standardised Australian LCI data for key basic materials and products.

“However, if manufacturers, ecolabel operators or LCA tool developers do decide to contribute to AusLCI, the excercise becomes embroiled in the question of where the money comes from to convert their data, and the BP LCI data, into AusLCI format, continue the process of development and where necessary correct the data,” said Baggs.

“There is some product specific data practitioners and manufacturers will release for the good of the country but they should not have to pay for this. If the country needs the data it should at least pay for the transfer into common format with high level quality control.”

ALCAS is currently working on grant applications for further development and standardisation of data for the Australian Life Cycle Inventory, AusLCI. Baggs is hopeful that AusLCI and BP LCI can work together to ensure the building products database is effectively put to use.

“I believe ALCAS can play a constructive role in bringing AusLCI AND BP LCI together and strengthen both. We would like to bring the ultimate intention of the BPIC project to the conclusion it needs.”

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au