EU to align environmental gauges for construction products

Environentally-friendly construction. Brussels, 2010. [Christos Doulkeridis/Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Plastics Recycling.

SPECIAL REPORT / The European Commission intends to align existing methods and standards to assess environmental performances of construction products, with the objective of favouring “green” comparisons, and higher levels of recycling and reuse.

By 2017, existing competing environmental rules and procedures for construction products should be harmonised to increase regulatory clarity and sustainability.

Currently, the sector follows the standard EN 15804 to assess the environmental impact of construction products, and the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) method, released by the EU Executive in April 2013.

At the end of the ongoing 3-year pilot phase for the PEF, the Commission will revise the two guages, with the aim of reconciling them. “We do not want both a standard and a method in three years’ time,” said Michele Galatola, an EU Commission official from the environment division.

The industry is pleased to see a simplification of existing rules, but fears that the process may end up in new, unwanted provisions.

The two key controversies concern the use of benchmarks to compare the environment-friendly performances of products and, specifically for the plastic sector, the negative impact on recycling derived from the possible expanding of the list of dangerous substances under the REACH regulation on chemicals.

A question of benchmark

“We do not see any sense in comparing different environmental product declarations,” said Gerald Feigenbutz, executive director of EPPA, the association bringing together European manufacturers of window systems based on polyvinyl chloride (PVC), one of the most common plastics.

A benchmark, indicating if a product is above or below the environmental average, is seen as controversial, because it could favour certain producers over others, while not necessarily guaranteeing the greenest options.

The use of benchmarks is under fire in many sectors, including, for example, food retailing. The so-called ‘traffic light’ system adopted in UK supermarkets, to allegedly rank products’ healthiness is causing a battle at EU level.

Producers complain that healthy products such as oil of olive get lower marks than drinks less-known for their health advantages, like Coke. Playing with the benchmarks is easy, they argue, calling for the abolition of the label system.

Although spread across several fields, the controversy over benchmarking assumes peculiar characteristics in the construction sector.

The Commission says that consumers are little aware of environmental labels, and that, at the moment, there is too much information, which equates to no information at all.

According to a recent Eurobarometer poll, 48% of European consumers are confused by the stream of environmental information they receive.

A simpler system of comparison among green performances may lead consumers to choose more environment-friendly and healthy products, also privileging those more adept at reuse, and recycling. 

“Consumers should be able to make comparisons on construction products not only based on costs, but also on environmental performances,” Karen Allacker, a researcher at the Leuven university, argued during a debate on Tuesday (29 April) in Brussels, organised by TEPPFA, the European association of companies active in the sector of plastic pipes and fittings. 

The Commission acknowledges, however, that benchmarks can be applied to certain products, “but not to others,” explained Galatola, adding that any decision “should be based on facts”.

Health vs recycling?

The other thorny issue concerns how to classify certain chemicals used in constructions.

A strict application of the REACH regulation may outlaw some substances that are currently widely used. Beyond the obvious costs of replacing banned materials with less dangerous substances, the industry fears that this may have a bad impact on recycling targets, as old materials would no longer be fit for reuse.

This problem is particularly felt in the plastic sector (see EURACTIV story), but concerns also other chemical-intensive industries, such a rubber, ceramics and crystals.

Dangerous substances, such as lead, are already being replaced voluntarily by the industry, but other substances may end up in the eyesight of the EU Agency for chemicals, with unpredictable consequences.

Ironically, a crusade to increase health and environmental protection may cause a significant reduction in recycling.

Construction products are all those used in buildings, and range from plastic pipes to electrical connectors, from concrete products to insulators.

The European institutions over the last years have increased the regulatory burden on these products in order to reduce their impact on the environment.

Buildings account for the largest share of the total EU final energy consumption (42%) and produce about 35% of all greenhouse emissions, according to the EU Executive.

European Commission: Press release on single market for green products – April 2013

EULex: Construction Products Regulation – 9 March 2011

European Commission: Webpage on REACH

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