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.

Next page: Consensus or not?