With the environmental crisis at our doors, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the construction industry must pivot towards more sustainable practices. To help this shift, architects, contractors, and other built environment professionals can make use of a powerful tool called an Environmental Product Declaration, or EPD in short. But what is an EPD, and how can it help make better, more informed material choices?

An Environmental Product Declaration is a document that clearly delineates the environmental impact of a product or material throughout its life cycle. From the extraction of raw materials to disposal or recycling, an EPD can cover it all, presenting a holistic view of a product’s environmental footprint. The different stages of a life-cycle are often summarised by different types of EPDs.

• Cradle-to-Gate EPDs, for example, cover the phases from the extraction of raw materials to the manufacturing of the product and its on-site deployment.

• Cradle-to-Grave EPDs, cover instead the whole life-cycle, including the necessary end-of-life operations.

Furthermore, EPDs are also divided by product-specific ones, detailing information about a specific product from a manufacturer, and generic ones, relating to a material or class of materials.

An EPD is a powerful document because it propels actionable insight. By comparing the EPDs of different materials and products — architects, contractors, and engineers can make informed and environmentally conscious decisions, based on verified data. Thus contributing to the larger goal of carbon emission reduction in construction projects. Moreover, manufacturers get a clear roadmap to optimise their products' impact and market their carbon transparency effectively.

However, extracting information from an EPD can at times seem a daunting task, especially due to its technical jargon and formatting. Let's see how one can read a typical EPD by using a practical example. In this case, we will take a look at the product "Straw Boards 280'' by VestaEco.

On the cover, we can already see some important information. For example the owner of the EPD, in this case VestaEco, and the issue date. We can also see the date validity, which for most EPDs is five years from the issue date.

Moreover, we can see which program is responsible for the EPD. In this example, it’s B-EPD, or the Belgian EPD Program.

In the first few pages of the EPD we find more detailed information, including whether this is a product-specific or generic EPD, and which standard(s) it complies with. 

Also, the declared unit is listed here, in this case 1 m3. The declared unit is important when comparing different materials, as it indicates the quantity of material for which the calculations were performed. In other words, the results of a life cycle assessment (LCA) are meaningless on their own and only make sense relative to the quantity of material used for the study. Some common units found in EPDs include tonnes, metres, square metres, cubic metres, and so on, but it can also be referred to as a unit, for example a door.

We also find information about the third party verifier, as an EPD must always be verified by a qualified third-party, ensuring the data’s accuracy and adherence to international standards like ISO 14025 and EN 15804.

Then, we come to the information regarding the life cycle assessment modules. They typically go from A (production and construction process), to B (use, maintenance, repair, and so on), to C (end of life) and finally D (recycling and recovering of waste materials). They are then subdivided further to follow individual steps of the product’s life.

We can see from the table which modules of the LCA were performed. Not every EPD will include them all, and in fact the ones from A4 to B7 are not yet mandatory in the EU.

The true heart of the EPD lies in its detailed environmental impact data section, which reports the results of the LCA, listing individual impact factors. There are, for example, the product's carbon footprint, resource usage, and emissions throughout its life cycle. Impact factors like Global Warming Potential (GWP), Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP), and Acidification Potential (AP) are also taken into account.

Sometimes, the biogenic carbon content will also be taken into consideration. Some products, especially bio-based ones such as VestaEco’s “Straw Boards 280” can act as carbon sinks. This means that they can store carbon emissions during the first phases of their lives and they keep it segregated until they reach their end of life. This is why many bio-based products have a negative embodied carbon figure and present positive numbers only in the later stages of the LCA.
Finally, towards the end, the EPD provides data on the product's practical applications, installation guidelines, and use-phase impacts.

In sum, an EPD serves as a reliable source of data for architects, contractors and other built environment professionals to navigate the intricate path of material and product choices. It enables conscious choices and can serve as a catalyst for fostering a future where construction harmonises with the planet. Furthermore, with more and more countries adopting policies and regulations tightening the CO2 limits for buildings, EPDs are crucial to achieve these emission targets.

You can find VestaEco’s “Straw Boards 280” EPD in our platform, along with thousands of other products. Our data platform offers +1 million reliable emission data points unified across Europe to ensure transparent and data-driven decision making.

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