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Environmental Impact of Water Products

February 23, 2018

When water products and sustainability are discussed in the same sentence, our minds immediately go to water savings, and this is a natural place to start. Water is a resource that is a right for all and is more precious than most people realize. Some have even hypothesized that the next major global war could start over water rights. With this in mind, saving water is the best place to start when thinking about water products and sustainability, but the conversation should not end there.

Saving water is an important aspect of the environmental impact of the products we us in water conveyance and consumption. Programs like WaterSense make it easy for us to identify some of the water efficient products on the market; however, water savings is certainly not the only aspect we should consider. What about the simple concept of embodied energy? How much energy was used in the production of one fixture or fitting? How much energy does an ozone generator use during its use phase? These are questions we can track and understand. They can also help us with our primary goal of saving water. As the US Geological Survey states¹, in 2005, 349 billion gallons of freshwater were withdrawn per day in the United States. The largest use of that freshwater was thermoelectric production, accounting for 41 percent of freshwater withdrawal, so conserving embodied energy saves water, as well.

To understand how energy contributes to water consumption, we need to understand the overall impact that a product has on its environment. Life cycle analysis (LCA) is a tool that is widely used in the sustainable space but, in reality, it’s the environmental space that adopted this tool. At its heart, LCAs are incredible business tools that enable manufacturers to take an in-depth look at their manufacturing processes, procedures, and delivery methodologies, as well as their supply chain and inputs. A good LCA lets organizations have a comprehensive look inside their business to identify opportunities for improvement. However, many of the products that your organization purchases or specifies aren’t going to have an LCA that the manufacturer can provide because it likely contains hundreds of pages with incredibly complex calculations and research, along with confidential information on how they run their business and compete in the marketplace. In other words, an LCA normally is not very leverageable.

A better way to understand some of the environmental impacts of the products you are purchasing is to use Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). EPDs are distilled snapshots of a product’s full LCA and impacts on environmental areas. Traditionally, these provide a review of seven impact areas:

  • Global warming potential
  • Ozone depletion potential
  • Photochemical ozone creation potential
  • Acidification potential
  • Eutrophication potential
  • Depletion of abiotic resources (elements)
  • Depletion of abiotic resources (fossil fuels)

These transparency tools show either an entire industry average impact of a type of product (with an industrywide EPD) or a specific product’s impact (in the case of product-specific EPDs). They also show the boundaries of the information – from natural resource gathering for the manufacturing of the product to the end of product life, from when the material gets to a manufacturing facility to when it leaves, or from natural resource gathering for the manufacturing of the product to when it leaves the manufacturing facility – and what performance and/or safety standards they meet. This can be accomplished in approximately 20 pages. To demonstrate commitment, an EPD should be produced in conjunction with a third-party organization, such as UL Environment, that verifies the information in the EPD is accurate per the LCA.( EPDs do not guarantee that a product is environmentally friendly or sustainable, but they offer a third-party-verified look at the manufacturing impacts of that product.

Many industry associations and manufacturers are producing EPDs. You simply need to request to see them and then use them in your procurement procedures. These can be used throughout procurement, bidding, and specification. EPDs are becoming more and more available in numerous industries, including water products, and you can rely on the traditional third-parties and approved agencies that you have used for years in procurement. This will allow you to understand some of the main ways in which a product can impact the environment.

Many different sustainability rating systems/codes/standards are now recognizing EPDs as a way to ensure people understand the environmental impacts of products. The US Green Building Council's LEED Rating System, NAHB’s National Green Building Standard, ASHRAE 189.1, International Code Council’s International Green Construction Code, Green Globes, and BREEAM are some of the green building rating systems or codes where EPDs are recognized in material chapters. Many architects, designers and procurement professionals are also utilizing EPDs to help make choices when deciding between products for their projects.

With an increasing number of organizations looking to ensure their environmental impacts are as minimal as possible, and procurement being done based on environmental impact factors, the use of EPDs is somewhat obvious. Today, we, as a water focused community, can easily make a difference in multiple areas of sustainability by expanding the new tools we have in our toolbox.

About the Author: Josh Jacobs serves as the Technical Information & Public Affairs Manager for UL, LLC. He is responsible for environmental and public health authority engagement and outside code participation for UL Environment.


As originally published in the February 2018 issue of WQP Magazine.