How to Read an Environmental Product Declaration

Photography Courtesy of Sensitile Systems.

What is an EPD?

If you’ve spent time scrolling through the environmental credentials for materials, you may have noticed the acronym EPD. It’s short for Environmental Product Declaration, and it’s a document that provides verified information about a product’s environmental impact across its life cycle. It’s not a certification or a standard—it doesn’t evaluate materials—but instead provides transparent, comparable information about what kinds of ingredients they contain and the impacts they have on the environment at different points in their life cycle.

The kind of information found in an EPD is gathered through a life cycle assessment (LCA), a standardized framework that quantifies the inputs, outputs, and potential environmental impacts of a product throughout its life cycle. A product’s life cycle is understood as beginning with the extraction and processing of raw materials, then manufacturing, transportation, and distribution; use and maintenance, and finally, its end of life. LCAs assess the waste produced, energy and materials used, and any environmental repercussions caused.

You can find EPDs in several ways. Use the Certificates and Standards filter in Material Bank’s search tool, or through MB’s partner, mindful MATERIALS, where they’re also listed. There’s also an EPD database maintained by the International EPD System. While EPDs may not always look the same, because the assessments are carried out by different independent third-party institutions and examiners, they always contain the same information. That’s because the procedure for creating an EPD was created in accordance with the ISO 14025 international standards for type III labels. There are also Product Category Rules (PCRs) that outline the requirements of a given EPD and the data it contains based on the kind of material being assessed. 

EPDs are chock full of information—open one and you may find over twenty pages of details and grids full of numbers and acronyms. Sound a bit intimidating? We’ll help walk you through it with an example from the Material Bank library.

Photography Courtesy of Sensitile Systems.

What are the different parts of an EPD?

1. General information

When you open an EPD, the first kind of information you’ll find is the name of the product and manufacturer, and the program operator, which is the examiner that carries out and verifies the data and declaration. In this case, we’re looking at an EPD for three kinds of Sensitile Systems concrete slabs and tiles: Terrazzo LuminaTM, PIXATM, and Sensitile® Terrazzo. Follow along using the PDF at the link above. The examiner is SCS Global Services. EPDs are valid for five years, so you’ll see the dates of validity and the Product Category Rule for the specific kind of material being appraised. You’ll also find the declared unit of the product used in the assessment—in the case of the Sensitile example it’s 1m2, with a thickness of 1-¼” and weight of 64kg/m2. When you read the results, this is the unit of the product to refer back to.

2. Product information

This section provides a summary of the characteristics of the product, as provided by the manufacturer. It also includes more technical product specification information, such as weight, thickness, and materials. This is where manufacturers provide the ingredients contained in the material—in the case of the Sensitile products, we find cement, recycled glass, sand, and aggregate.

3. Methodology used for the life cycle assessment (LCA)

This section of the EPD typically displays a table with columns for each stage in the life cycle. Here it’s important to note that many EPDs don’t conduct a life cycle assessment for products’ entire life cycles. The limitations on the stages of the life cycle covered by the EPD are called the system boundary. In most EPDs, the stages within the system boundary are marked with an X, and those beyond the system boundary are marked MND (module not declared). In the Sensitile EPD, for example, the declared life cycle stages include raw material extraction and processing, transportation to the manufacturing facility, and manufacturing. This is a cradle to gate assessment because it doesn’t cover any process after manufacturing.

Other LCAs with different system boundaries might include phases such as installation, use, maintenance, replacement, operational energy and water use, and end of life processes such as deconstruction, transport, waste processing, disposal, and the potential for reuse, recovery, or recycling.

4. Results of LCA

Life cycle assessment results are also shown in table format, with a column for each life cycle stage and a row for each kind of impact measured. These tables typically show an amount and a percentage at each life stage of the life cycle, so readers can see clearly which stages have the biggest and smallest footprints.

When an EPD declares more than one product, as is the case with the Sensitile EPD, a separate table may be listed for each product or a single table may show the average of all products’ results together. Each impact can be understood as what is released through the production of the declared unit of the material—in this case, 1m2 of Sensitile Terrazzo LuminaTM, PIXATM, or Sensitile® Terrazzo.

The first impact is global warming potential (GWP), which tells us how much CO2 is released at each stage in the declared life cycle, and the total CO2 released across the declared life cycle. Other impacts measured include acidification potential, eutrophication potential, photochemical ozone creation potential, ozone depletion potential, and abiotic depletion potentials.

Other tables provide results about resource and water use, using measures such as “Net use of fresh water resources,” “Total use of renewable primary energy resources,” and “Total use of nonrenewable primary energy resources.” And a final table tells us about the waste produced, including the hazardous, nonhazardous, and radioactive waste disposed of.

5. Analysis of LCA results

While some EPDs end after the LCA results, others provide additional information – an analysis of the results, summary of major impacts, or more details about each stage of the life cycle. The Sensitile EPD continues for another four pages, with supplementary information about data quality, product properties, production processes, and the system boundaries. For example, Sensitile describes each declared life cycle stage in greater detail, explaining what is and isn’t included in each.

While EPDs provide standardized LCA assessments, not all are suitable for side-by-side comparisons. Comparability is limited when EPDs cover different life cycle stages, are based on different product category rules (PCRs) or calculation models, or don’t include all of the same environmental impacts—and EPDs from different examiners also may not be comparable.

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