25 March 2010 – The Green Building Council of Australia’s Green Star rating system for buildings is undergoing a fundamental shift. It is a philosophical shift that involves working more closely with industry, particularly for rating building materials. The GBCA says this is a positive move that will encourage best practice by manufacturers and suppliers. But some industry insiders believe it is a sign that the GBCA has caved in to industry pressure and its independence is being undermined. Lynne Blundell reports.

In the seven years since the Green Star rating system was introduced it has come a long way. It is a globally recognised system for measuring just how sustainable the design and construction of a building really is.

The number of green buildings around the country has grown exponentially since then and Australia is considered a world leader in sustainable property. At the Green Cities conference this year the world’s newest green building councils in South Africa, Hong Kong and Singapore talked about the Australian organisation as a trailblazer – many have modelled their ratings tools on the Australian versions.

In an interview with The Fifth Estate this week, Green Star executive director, Robin Mellon, said the GBCA believes working with industry is essential if the Green Star rating tools are to evolve and to reflect improvements in manufacturing and delivery practices.

“I’ve been really encouraged in the last year by how much assistance and expertise has been offered to us by industry,” says Mellon.

“And yes it would be naïve to think that there wouldn’t be industry pressure in one direction – they want their products to be continued to be used and also to be recognised for improvements in their practices.

“But we can’t be experts in all things and we have learnt a great deal in the past year through the workshops and expert panels about just how much has changed and improved in industry. I’ve also been impressed with how willing the timber, steel, concrete and PVC industries have been to share information and to be more transparent about their operations.”

Mounting pressure
There is no doubt that the GBCA has been under considerable pressure from industry.

Late last year The Fifth Estate reported on the concessions the Council made to the timber industry after ongoing pressure from the timber section of one of the country’s largest unions, the CFMEU (see our story on this).  As a result the GBCA revised the way it credits timber used in commercial buildings. It temporarily suspended one of the two points that could be awarded to timber and modified requirements for the remaining point.

The main change was removing the requirement that to receive one of two possible points timber must come from forests operating under the internationally recognised Forestry Stewardship Council scheme. Instead, timber is now accepted from any scheme as long as it meets key criteria relating to production practices.

The second point still hangs in the balance until the GBCA completes discussions with timber producers so that it can set a set of “significant criteria”. These, says Robin Mellon, centre around issues such as bio diversity, chemical use and forest conservation.

“”The message that we have got loud and clear during this process is the need to make sure that the Australian forestry industry is economically and environmentally sustainable,” says Mellon.

But timber was just the beginning. The GBCA is currently reviewing the criteria it uses to award points to Polyvinyl Chloride, concrete and steel.

Proposed revised credit systems for both PVC and steel were released in February. Public comments were then invited, with a closing date of March 19. Following review of these comments, a final version for PVC is expected within the next month and for steel within two months. The proposed revised criteria for concrete will be released in the next couple of months and then opened to public comment.

Tree house: toxin free

The crucial change for PVC in the revisions is that the GBCA no longer discourages its use by rewarding points for use of alternative materials.

Instead, projects will be able to claim two points towards their Green Star rating if the project’s flooring, cable, pipe and conduit – which together account for the majority of PVC use in buildings – meet the GBCA’s Best Practice Guidelines.

These guidelines establish best practice criteria throughout the life cycle of PVC products, covering manufacturing methods, emissions and disposal and recycling.

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.

Robin Mellon says an extensive review of scientific literature by an external expert panel found that much of the negative attitude to PVC was based on historical data and did not reflect major improvements made in manufacturing methods and in the recycling of PVC. He also argues that by not awarding points to PVC the GBCA was inadvertently encouraging use of other undesirable materials as well as PVC product manufactured in countries where best practice standards were not used.

“One of the main concerns regarding PVC is the manufacture of chlorine and the emissions of dioxins. By only accepting material from manufacturers using industry best practice we want to ensure that lead, chlorine and dioxins are minimised or removed wherever possible,” says Mellon.

Future work by the GBCA may involve a life cycle analysis approach to the Green Star Materials Category which compares the health and environmental impacts of all building materials. Until that time the GBCA believes the new credit revisions will stimulate demand for best practice, responsibly-produced PVC products in Australia and act as a driver for positive change within the PVC industry.

Mellon says there has been overwhelmingly positive response to the PVC criteria changes in the public submissions, “not just from suppliers but from those out there building and working on projects.”

US EPA targeting PVC as dangerous
But not everyone sees “best practice” in the PVC industry as good enough. In the US, the EPA is looking at regulating health threats from four classes of chemicals widely used in building materials, including PVC.

According to the Bill Walsh, executive director of the Healthy Building Network, a US-based non profit organisation that aims to improve the health of buildings, the EPA’s actions are focusing new attention on “green” building product standards that do not adequately account for health impacts, including the US Green Building Council’s LEED Rating System.

The classes of chemicals listed by EPA as “chemicals of concern,” include flame retardants, stain and water repellants, and phthalates (90 per cent of which are used as softeners in flexible vinyl products such as floor and wall coverings). According to Walsh, these are largely ignored by the certifications most widely used in the green building industry and recognised by LEED.

“As a result, LEED-rated projects – even LEED Platinum buildings – risk being cited as sources of exposure to EPA-listed “chemicals of concern” including endocrine disruptors and neurotoxins,” says Walsh.

The Healthy Building Network aims to have PVC replaced by alternative materials and its website contains a list of these. Its premise for doing so is 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.

Bill Walsh

“The manufacturers of less healthy products use green certifications and standards to aid and abet their greenwash campaigns. Consumers are left confused and increasingly cynical when every product seems to have some sort of green label,” says Walsh.

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.

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.

The GBCA’s revised credits for steel will also focus on industry best practice in the manufacturing process from raw materials handling through to efficiencies through dematerialising.

The previous system focused on awarding points for products with a high use of recycled steel. This was no longer a driver of change, says the GBCA, as Australia’s steel industry is already recycling at world’s best practice, with recycling rates from industrial and construction sources at close to 90 per cent.

“We need to move beyond recycling. We’re concentrating on encouraging more efficient use of steel,” says Mellon. “For example, if structural steel is not necessary in a particular application, we are encouraging the use of reinforcing steel instead. This achieves the same result using less material.”

Alongside these changes to materials accreditation, the GBCA has also overhauled its assessment framework for product certification schemes. The GBCA does not test, review or certify products or materials, instead relying on third party certification bodies. Previously it only recognised products certified under the Good Environment Choice Australia system. Now equal recognition is given to schemes that certify to best practice.

The first creditation scheme to be recognised under the new system is The Carpet Institute of Australia’s Environmental Certification Scheme.

“We are opening the market up. It was never about favouring one scheme over another. It is a matter of now making it clear to the market which schemes are recognized by the GBCA. I’d like to think that in a year’s time there will be four or five schemes up on our website,” says Mellon.

The shift in the GBCA’s approach comes at a time when it is calling for greater clarity about ratings systems. This was highlighted in the recent signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the GBCA and NABERS designed to develop a common language for both rating tools and the metrics that underpin them.

Robin Mellon says the changes are not incompatible with this message from the two organisations.

“We just have to be very clear about what we are doing and to communicate that. We need to determine what best practice looks like and then come up with the criteria.

“We are aware there is a bit of confusion out there about the various ratings tools and we need to make sure they go together better. Both agencies have also been missing out on some education opportunities –we want every real estate professional – agents, quantity surveyors and valuers – to understand both ratings systems and take that knowledge out into the market,” says Mellon.

Australia is also not alone in the move to a best practice accreditation approach, he says.

“We are seeing this approach slowly happening around the world. The US Green building Council is going through the same sort of credit reviews.”

Steel tubes

Another group which is developing rating tools for infrastructure, The Australian Green Infrastructure Council, is also closely involving manufacturers in the development of its tools. In addition to government sponsorship of some its ratings sub-categories, BlueScope Steel and the Plastics Industry Pipe Association of Australia are sponsoring authorship of the Materials Selection and Use category.

Certainly industry welcomes the GBCA move. Following the release of the revised PVC criteria,  chief executive officer of the Vinyl Council of Australia, Sophi MacMillan, praised the GBCA for its decision. “There is now an opportunity for our industry to demonstrate it can continue its momentum for more sustainable product outcomes to meet the future needs of the building and construction industry.

“The VCA looks forward to working with the GBCA and the property industry to support the introduction of the new PVC Green Star credit,” MacMillan said.

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au