EPA published a request for comments on its role in advancing sustainable products September 16, 2010. I submitted the following comments:
Comments on EPA’s Role in Advancing Sustainable Products 75 FR 56528
Georjean L. Adams, EHS Strategies, Inc.
September 30, 2010
I am commenting on the September 16, 2010, notice soliciting comments on the role EPA should play in advancing sustainable products. I am a professional who has for many years dealt with product environmental marketing claims as a corporate product stewardship manager, as a consultant, and currently as a member of a standard development committee on greener chemical products.
In general, I think the best contribution by EPA in products is to ensure a solid scientific foundation for development of products that can be made, used and disposed of with the least adverse impact on health and the environment throughout its life cycle. EPA can also assist with educating government, industry, academia and the general public about sustainability.
But first I must comment on the concept of “a sustainable product.” I’m not sure there is such a thing. A product must be considered within the context of the social, economic and physical systems in which it is made, used and disposed of. Relevant factors include things such as:
- number of different operations
- volumes handled
- the sophistication of the companies, employees and users involved at each life cycle stage of a specific product
- distance from the customers at each transfer point in the supply chain
- ecosystem/resource profiles at each life cycle stage
- raw materials and energy sources used relative to the product
- number and kind of process steps and their associated EHS risk management practices
- local infrastructure at every life cycle stage
- local social and economic systems at every life cycle stage
All of which are undergoing constant change within their business, environmental and social systems over time.
Therefore, except for the very rare product with a single source and limited market niche and geographic use, it doesn’t have much meaning to say a given widget is “sustainable.”
At best we can list some of the attributes that impact sustainability (such as those listed above) and try to collate a series of life cycle snapshots that are more or less relevant to a particular product. Further, I believe that sustainability is a relative term in comparing alternatives, as opposed to a finite quantitative state of being. This philosophy is behind the recent GCI-NSF “Greener Chemicals and Processes Information Standard” proposal which attempts to list key metrics for only the chemical manufacturing life cycle stage in the hopes that a customer could compare relative suppliers of a single chemical product. See http://standards.nsf.org/apps/group_public/document.php?document_id=9409
It remains to be seen whether this will prove to be practical and meaningful. I remain concerned that there are far too many criteria required in the standard. (I was a member of the Joint Committee that developed the proposed standard.)
I offer the following comments on the specific questions raised in the Federal Register notice:
1. What do you see as the major policy and research challenges, opportunities, and trends impacting the development, manufacture, designation, and use of sustainable products?
I’d first recast the question as “…impacting… more sustainable products and processes?”
- the inability to force generation and sharing of perfect information both for practical and proprietary reasons. How do you determine what information is “enough”?
- value differences among stakeholders. How do you weight EHS/social/economic costs and benefits?
- lack of understanding and appreciation for systems/life cycle thinking over the long term (by politicians and business and the general public)
- difficulty in communicating uncertainty and risk
- the need to apportion contributions and restrictions for cumulative impacts fairly
- getting consensus on whether “sustainability” is a function of risk or simply inherent hazard of materials. (My bias is that risk has to be a consideration, as there is no product with zero risk.)
- understanding the key variables that affect local and global system impacts (preceded by understanding the systems themselves)
- calculating aggregate and cumulative impacts
- how to use representative information for products made and used in different geographic locations (when to use what default assumptions)
- all the challenges in conducting risk characterizations and assessment
2. What do you see as EPA’s overall role in addressing these challenges and opportunities?
- educating the public on ecosystem/resource life cycle impacts
- improving communication of risks
- develop tools to understand and characterize local impacts at each stage of a life cycle.
- such tools could then be used by participants in a product’s supply chain and would help the product manufacturer design better processes, sourcing, products and risk management processes.
- develop tools for the agency to conduct aggregate and cumulative impacts assessments.
- EPA can act as a convener for stakeholders to apportion contributions to cumulative impacts.
I can’t see that a company can deal with cumulative impacts outside of its own products. Cumulative impacts by definition will involved multiple industries, agencies and interest groups across multiple locations. As EPA has experienced with TMDLs for large water bodies, this is incredibly difficult scientifically and politically where the interests of a wide array of local entities need significant input on who can contribute how much to maintain safe levels. Compound that difficulty by broadening the scale to nationally or globally acceptable contributions across all media, all chemical uses, large numbers of jurisdictions and the political and technical challenges. Managing cumulative and aggregate impacts can only be resolved by extensive dialogue among stakeholders. Perhaps EPA can bring government, business and NGO stakeholders together as a facilitator.
3. In particular, how do you see EPA’s role in:
Assembling information and databases.
- A logical EPA function. The need is also global, so working with other international organizations – UN, OECD, EU – would help to avoid duplication. The data has to be maintained and subject to rigorous data quality management and well-qualified as to local applicability so that it will be used appropriately in decision-making.
Identifying sustainability “hotspots” and setting product sustainability priorities.
- Insofar as EPA develops a better view of cumulative impacts, it is appropriate to call out “hotspots” or products and processes that have significant inefficiencies and environmental and health adverse impacts. However, I don’t think EPA is necessarily equipped to deal with the social and economic impacts (pro and con) that also are a necessary part of meeting sustainability goals. EPA has a responsibility to describe potential risks accurately and to focus its role on scientific characterization, as opposed to social acceptability. EPA can also identify the tools it has available to manage risks through regulatory authorities.
Evaluating the multiple impacts of products across their entire life cycle.
- It is not feasible for EPA to evaluate total life cycle impacts on all products. Preferably, EPA will develop useful models for individual companies and agencies to use on priority products. EPA risk management proposals should address those areas where exposure is of concern at points within the life cycle (with total ban on production as a last resort).
Defining criteria for more sustainable products.
- Yes, as commented in #2 above. The criteria need to be both relevant and reduced in number to as manageable a set of parameters as possible.
Generating eco-labels and/or standards.
- It is not clear that EPA should develop capabilities to evaluate any and all product categories that exist and will exist for the multitude of criteria that exist around the “sustainability” arena. EPA is already hard-pressed to deal with individual pollutant standards without trying to keep up with the ever-changing US industrial, commercial and consumer marketplaces. Even the Energy Star program has shown strains on EPA and DOE keeping up with improving technology and validating claims.
- EPA should narrowly define product areas only where there is a critical need for nationwide consistent standards that address key environmental concerns and work with other federal agencies to set standards. EPA should carefully analyze the issues it has in dealing with automobile mileage standards and Energy Star to determine whether those programs are working as intended and what characteristics the product categories and markets have that make them amenable or not to a government operated national standards effort as opposed to 3rd party standards and certification. Factors such as standardized testing reliability and capability, defined products categories that are fungible, consumer understanding, value of the metric within the context of sustainability goals, market size and variability, etc.
- DfE has been successful in bringing highly motivated stakeholders together to identify and give recognition for safer product designs. I also support improving DfE’s credibility through auditing/certification of claims. The way EPA has acted as a convener to achieve consensus has been valuable and should continue at some level for product categories where industry wants to collaborate. However, I do not believe it appropriate for EPA to evolve a more general “green” labeling program. Non-government activity exists and is proliferating. Let it. The staff to resource such an ongoing effort would pull away from core areas where only EPA can perform – regulations and research.
Establishing the scientific foundation for these eco-labels and/or standards.
- Yes, as it would contribute to internal and external programs and is part of understanding life cycle impacts of concern.
- EPA may well be suited to validating 3rd party standards as appropriately using EHS criteria and metrics.
Verifying that products meet standards
- As stated above, I do not see it feasible for EPA to staff up to be able to review all products making claims. EPA resources would be better spent accrediting the standard makers.
Stimulating the market.
- Allowing labeling for DfE compliant products is good.
- Providing consultation to federal government procurement may be appropriate, but I do not see it a priority for EPA to maintain resources to be able to catalog all acceptable “sustainable” products. Rather, resources can be devoted to validating the merits of various 3rd party standard metrics.
Developing end-of-life management systems (reuse, recycling, etc.).
- EPA should work on modifying regulations that support such systems as opposed to creating and dealing with the logistics of managing them.
- EPA can develop necessary components and considerations (e.g., life cycle impacts) that should be used by developers of end-of-life management systems.
Measuring results, evaluating programs.
- EPA can review and comment on 3rd party standards programs for whether they are scientific validity and result in appropriate characterization of life cycle environmental and health impacts of products.
- EPA’s primary mission “to protect human health and to safeguard the natural environment — air, water and land — upon which life depends” requires the ability to evaluate the state of the US environment and to identify trends that may show progress or need for further attention. Highlighting both success and challenges will encourage continued product redesign and invention to assist progress toward sustainability.
Missing from the above list is the EPA role of developing and continually improving education around sustainability concepts and tools. The audience should be broad-based: the public, government at all levels, academia and business. EPA should work with the broad array of stakeholders who are engaged in education efforts around sustainability.
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