Will the plastics industry kill LEED?

Two Steps Forward

Will the plastics industry kill LEED?

The latest skirmish in a decade-old battle broke out this week, as 20 trade groups announced a new coalition to challenge the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system as the dominant standard for buildings. In many respects it’s déjà vu all over again.

The new coalition, the American High-Performance Buildings Coalition, includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Chemistry Council, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Vinyl Institute, the Vinyl Siding Institute, the Flexible Vinyl Alliance, the Society of the Plastics Industry and 20 other industry associations. The group is lobbying the U.S. General Services Association, which requires the LEED standard for all federal buildings, to reconsider, opting instead to require the Green Globes standard (“The Practical Building Rating System,” according to its website), considered to be friendlier to industry, including the plastics industry, which has invested heavily in the building products space.

The members’ make a wide range of materials and products widely used in buildings, including heat-reflecting roofing membranes, PVC piping and foam insulation.

LEED is the most-used green building standards globally, as well as in the United States, where more than 400 cities and communities, 39 states and 14 federal agencies currently require builders to meet LEED standards. LEED is voluntary, but it has been adopted by the GSA and other government agencies as the required building standard for new construction. Government agencies have been critical to LEED's success: roughly a third of LEED projects are government-owned.

Both GSA and the U.S. Department of Defense are reviewing green building rating systems and codes, assessing their alignment with federal government goals, including energy and cost savings as well as toxic chemical avoidance.

The latest skirmish is over the chemical and plastics industries’ objection to LEED’s proposed fourth-generation standard, known as LEED v4, which originally allowed buildings to score points for avoiding certain chemicals of concern, such as polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. The chemical-plastics industry coalition complained that these are “arbitrary chemical restrictions” and claims that LEED is “becoming a tool to punish chemical companies.” But the draft has since been changed, to provide only credit for using "good" materials, not avoiding "bad" ones. Still, the chemical and plastics industries seem to find this threatening. The industry group also claims that LEED v4 is not “science-based” and does not use a “true consensus approach” to development.

Among the industries’ concerns is a proposed credit that applies to the construction of schools, stores, and data centers, among others. It is meant to encourage the use of materials that disclose chemical ingredients and encourage builders to use products that don’t exceed a certain level of lead, mercury, hexavalent chromium, carcinogens, and other toxic substances.

This is hardly the first time the chemical and plastics industries have attacked LEED. Indeed, the battles go back to 2000 and 2001, during the USGBC’s earliest days, when the Vinyl Institute tried to join the fledgling organization but was rebuffed by its leadership following months of raucous debates about whether the trade groups representing materials and products considered anathema to the council's interests should be allowed to join. At the time, the Vinyl Institute was turned away, though it was allowed to join some years later.

Other trade groups have attempted to undermine LEED over the years to suit their members’ interests. For example, in the mid-2000s, the timber industry, frustrated with LEED’s rigorous standards around sustainable forestry, imported a weaker Canadian standard, Green Globes, funding its introduction into the U.S. The industry then lobbied heavily to have Green Globes become an alternate, if not preferred standard, to LEED.

The most serious grievances the group is against LEED have been refuted by the Green Building Council and others. (The website BuildingGreen.com does a nice job of that here.) Most of the charges are not new.

For example, industry groups have long criticized LEED for not being a “true” consensus-based standard. This refers to a standard developed according to the guidelines of the American National Standards Institute, which has rules for what it calls “voluntary national consensus standards.” LEED, among others standards, opted not to go the ANSI route, instead using its own stakeholder-engagement process. “It may not be an ANSI standard, but the idea that it's not a rigorous, consensus based process is laughable,” Christine Ervin, USGBC’s founding CEO, told me. She referred to the “hundreds of stakeholders” who were frustrated by the long, often tedious conversations and debates undertaken during LEED’s creation. “It is a very carefully, balanced process.”

Moreover, the chemical and plastics industry have a track record of gumming up the works even in consensus-based standard making. Take ANSI-based EPEAT, for instance, the green electronics that gained notoriety of its own last week. “The chemical industry has acted as a block against chemical restrictions,” says Ervin, who sits on EPEAT’s board. That, she says, has greatly slowed EPEAT's forthcoming standards for printers and TVs.

The chemical industry has characterized LEED in other ways that aren’t exactly accurate. Its claim that it is punishing chemical companies is undermined by LEED’s actual intent, which is not to ban toxic chemicals but to give extra points for manufacturers and builders that avoid them. It’s an entirely voluntary process. A building can contain chemicals of concern and still earn enough points to be certified at one of LEED’s four levels.

It's important to note that the chemical industry is doing itself a disservice here. Many of its biggest members -- Dow, Dupont, BASF -- are actively engaged in green chemistry, designing products and materials that eliminate many of these offensive toxins. For these companies' trade groups to simultaneously defend these problematic chemicals seems a desperate, archaic act.

As I said, these conversations have been going around and around for some time.

But this time may be different. The chemical industry, sensing a friendly political climate, likely views GSA's current review of LEED as a pivotal moment. After all, GSA itself is under attack on several fronts for wastefulness and certain shenanigans. Representatives on both sides of the aisle have been less willing to take on industry — the “job creators," after all. (In May, 55 members of Congress sent a letter to GSA asking it to reconsider its endorsement of LEED if certain anti-chemical provisions are not removed.) USGBC’s latest proposed standard puts it in closer alignment with the European Union’s restrictive chemical policy called REACH — and you know how some politicians feel about Europe.

The USGBC took the high ground in responding to the creation of the new coalition — it “applauded the creation” of the council, saying that the trade groups “were finally engaging in conversation about the critical importance of green, high-performance buildings for America.”

But the council is clearly feeling the heat. “We are at a significant moment in our organization’s history,” it said in an email blast on Wednesday, adding that the group “is facing our greatest threat to date.” It is aiming to get the signatures of at least 1,000 companies supporting the federal government’s continued reliance on LEED for a letter it intends to send to GSA.

It could be a tough fight — and the future of LEED could be in doubt. Will the standards’ many supporters in business, government, universities and the environmental community rise up to meet the chemical and plastics industries’ efforts to undermine LEED?

It’s shaping up to be green building’s battle royale.

Photocollage of LEED logo with target by GreenBiz Group.