Global conversations about climate and human health are converging. Consumers are better informed, and designers – who play an important role in shaping consumer perceptions – are embracing their growing role as leaders in the use of healthy, sustainable materials, and in mitigating our collective carbon footprint.
A quick situation analysis:
- Consumer recycling isn’t going to save us from ourselves. Factors: confusion over what is truly recyclable, cratering markets for recycled materials, and the realization that much of what we carefully drop in those colorful bins ends up in landfills anyway. According to an article in the January 2021 issue of The Atlantic magazine (How Useful Is Recycling, Really?), “The recycling industry’s projected contributions fell below the median...”
- Commercial interior design has a much larger impact on a building’s embodied carbon footprint than previously thought. We’ve known since 2003 that the building sector is responsible for 40% of worldwide carbon emissions, and the assumption was that interiors accounted for only seven percent of the total. Recent research conducted by the Carbon Leadership Forum and Seattle-based LMN Architects turns that assumption on its head: the cumulative embodied carbon of interior renovations over the lifespan of a building actually surpasses the emissions of the building structure and envelope.
- 2030 is the point of no return for global warming caused by the emission of greenhouse gases, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
There’s a common thread tying together these three factors: the inherent environmental health-and-wellness benefits of decorative composite wood panels sourced from managed North American forests. It’s a story that the composite panel industry hopes will continue to resonate.
Decorative composite wood panels:
- Begin life as a recycled product
- Absorb and store more carbon than is released in their creation, making them naturally climate positive
- Last longer than solid wood or veneer thanks to the core and surface durability
- Support and sustain healthy forests
- Save rare and fragile hardwoods
- Emit formaldehyde well below ambient indoor and outdoor norms
Andy O’Hare, the Composite Panel Association’s (CPA) newly minted president, comes to the panel world with fresh eyes and a background in stepping up to challenges similar to ours. I spoke with Andy in late January about his vision for the industry.
Q: As someone coming to this industry from the outside, what strikes you as our biggest opportunity? Our biggest challenge?
This industry just has one of the best sustainability stories, a continuum from the forest all the way to furniture, cabinetry and interiors. We just have to tell it more often, to more people.
Q: This is a challenge we’ve been facing for quite some time. How will you approach it?
From 1995 to 2014 I was the VP of Government Affairs for the Portland Cement Association, and we were interested in how we might market cement and concrete as a “green” material. We were one of the first sectors to prepare a life cycle inventory [LCI] and analysis [LCA] of our members’ operations. This was back in the mid-1990s before there was even an ISO standard [14040: 2006] for the process.
This ultimately resulted in a partnership with the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, which promotes sustainable development across macro economies on a global basis, to promote cement and concrete across the world. I also worked with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to create a panel of renowned concrete architects to advise us on how we can do a better job of selling the sustainability of cement and concrete. We were successful in moving the residential concrete marketplace from 2% of the housing market to about 12% in several key markets over the course of seven or eight years.
This is the kind of focus and energy I’d like to bring to the industry.
Q: Concerns about formaldehyde in composite wood still come up. How should the CPA address that issue for its members?
It’s important to remember that composite wood panels produced in North America emit less formaldehyde than you’d encounter walking through a forest.
The composite panel sector has been very thoughtful and forthright in working with the California Air Resources Board (CARB), and subsequently with Congress and the EPA, to craft very transparent and stringent federal regulations to manage potential emissions and exposure to formaldehyde from these composite panel products.
Associated with that is a rigorous testing and certification program, the details of which are verified by an independent, third-party inspection program that audits production facilities more than once a quarter. Having worked on these kinds of issues for 30 years now, I can tell you that this is by far one of the most comprehensive such programs I’ve ever been exposed to...no pun intended. This program provides just the type of product information desired by designer and consumers.
Q: What are the strongest parts of our climate and human health story?
Our story is powerfully positive, starting with the use of recycled wood or agricultural fiber used as raw material. Virtually all CPA members derive their fiber from sustainable forests, and there’s very little residue from forming the panels. Virtually all the fiber is consumed in some way, in the panels or in generating energy to run a mill.
The most important climate-friendly attribute of our products is the embedded carbon, which is the stored, or sequestered, carbon in the panels themselves that isn’t released until they decompose or are burned. The embodied carbon in panel products is much lower than for competing materials like steel or concrete.
These are all messages millennial architects and designers want to hear, and that complement green-building ratings systems – USGBC, Green Globes and others – that assess how to assign credits to our products. The CPA created the Eco-Certified Composite (ECC) Certification program to be able to showcase these composite panel sustainability attributes.
Q: What are some of the remaining challenges?
Marrying the climate change debate with the solutions our products offer, that’s my next six months. Further out, I want to enhance CPA’s ECC program, and integrate it into our climate change policy advocacy.
We need to tailor and further enhance outreach programs with the design community. I want this sector to get to a place where our message is being enthusiastically shared by designers and architects.
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