The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), an independent U.S. government agency that “provides workplaces by constructing, managing, and preserving government buildings and by leasing and managing commercial real estate,” is considering new “green” building certification guidelines that require builders avoid using polyvinyl chloride (i.e. PVC).
But who would propose regulations that discourage the use of the third most widely produced (and consumed) plastic in the world? To answer that question, it’s important to understand a little more about the GSA, the U.S. Green Building Council, and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system.
The GSA and it's "green" agenda
The GSA was established by President Harry Truman on July 1, 1949, according to the agency’s website. The original purpose of the organization was to “dispose of war surplus goods, manage and store government records, handle emergency preparedness, and stockpile strategic supplies for wartime.”
However, since its founding, the GSA has been entrusted with several different projects, including in 1985 when, as a result of an Executive Order signed by President Ronald Reagan, the agency was delegated with the chore of offering "government wide policy oversight and guidance for federal real property management.”
And since then, energy efficiency and “going green” have become major goals of the agency.
For instance, according to the GSA's site:
A 2009-2010 milestone was the implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act efforts. With the goal of transforming federal buildings into higher performing, greener buildings, GSA awarded billions…[to fund] more than 500 companies in all 50 states, two territories and the District of Columbia. Here is the breakdown of Recovery Act dollars spent:
$4.5 billion: Federal building conversion to high-performance green spaces
$750 million: Federal building and courthouse renovations
$300 million: Fuel-efficient vehicles
$300 million: Land ports of entry renovation and constructionGSA’s 2010 Sustainability Plan sets an agency goal for a zero environmental footprint and a 30 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by greening the federal supply chain and creating sustainable innovation within its building portfolio.
The USGBC and its LEED "green" building program
The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is a Washington-based 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated “to a prosperous and sustainable future through cost-efficient and energy-saving green buildings,” according to its website. The organization’s stated goal is to provide everyone with a "green" building within a generation.
To achieve its "green" goals, the USGBC developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a ratings system that certifies buildings as being “green."
“LEED is transforming the way built environments are designed, constructed, and operated --- from individual buildings and homes, to entire neighborhoods and communities,” the website proudly states, “Comprehensive and flexible, LEED works throughout a building's life cycle.”
However, although the USGBC is a non-profit, its activities are closely linked to the GSA via LEED.
“GSA uses the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System of the U.S.” the government agency's website claims.
The site continues:
The use of LEED ensures that sustainable strategies are considered in the development of all GSA building projects. GSA has recently increased its minimum requirement for new construction and substantial renovation of Federally-owned facilities to LEED Gold, the next highest level of certification. LEED consists of a set of prerequisites and credits with specific requirements for obtaining points in order to become a certified green building.
In fact, the GSA is so impressed with LEED that it proudly touts the fact that it has enrolled 50 buildings in the LEED program since August.
Oh, by the way: the USGBC retains a federal adviser to its Board of Directors who is also a senior executive to the GSA. Donald Horn, whose taxpayer-funded job is to act as the GSA’s Deputy Director of the Office of Federal High-Performance Green Buildings, also serves as the Federal Adviser to the Board of Directors that runs the LEED program.
And as if that doesn't raise some eyebrows, perhaps this will: LEED also makes a lot of money off of U.S. taxpayers.
First off, LEED certification is not cheap. Design and construction review of a new building can cost up to $27,500. In fact, in 2009, the USGBC made over $74 million from accreditation, membership dues, and certification fees. The non-profit organization reported $53 million in net assets at the end of that year.
A large chunk of that income came from the U.S. government.
The LEED directory on the USGBC website lists hundreds of federal, state, and local government buildings that have gone through the LEED certification process or were built to LEED specifications. In fact, in 2009 President Obama signed an executive order ordering all new buildings -- and those under constructing -- for government agencies to do whatever needed to be done to become eligible for LEED certification.
The extent to which the federal government subsidizes the USGBC is made clear when you realize the amount of LEED-certified building space in Washington, DC, which has more LEED-certified space on a per-capita basis than in any of the 50 states. Over 18.9 million square feet, or 31.5 square feet per resident, is LEED certified in the Washington, DC; the closest state is Colorado, with 2.7 square feet per person.
How do you suppose the government paid for all those LEED certificates (that's a rhetorical question)?
The new green war on PVC
And this brings us all the way back to PVC. As first mentioned, the GSA is considering new USGBC regulations that include the “avoidance” of the popular material.
As the proposal states: The intent is to “decrease the concentrations of chemical contaminants that can damage air quality, human health, productivity, and the environment.” And to this end, LEED will certify whoever uses products or materials “that do not contain intentionally added substances present in the end product.” This includes Polyvinyl chloride.
In the next few months, the GSA will decide whether or not it will approve the new proposals put forth by the USGBC for LEED certification.
"There seems to be a welling up of concern over PVC again,” said Ric Jackson, director of external affairs for Quanex Building Products, according to Door And Window Manufacturer Magazine.
Allen Blakey, vice president of Industry and Government Affairs for the Vinyl Institute, says his organization is "astonished to see PVC added to the USGBC’s list of chemicals to avoid," the report adds. According to Blakey, PVC is a material that’s been studied for some time by the USGBC itself.
Indeed, the proposal to "avoid" PVC is odd considering the fact that the USGBC released a memo back in 2007 stating:
- "PVC performs better than some alternatives studied for window frames, siding, and drain-waste-vent pipe;"
- "Relative to the environmental impact categories (acidification, eutrophication, ecotoxicity, smog, ozone depletion and global climate change), PVC performs better than several material alternatives studied;"
- "If buyers switched from PVC to aluminum window frames, to aluminum siding, or to cast iron pipe, it could be worse than using PVC;"
- "The evidence indicates that a credit that rewards avoidance of PVC could steer decision makers toward using materials that are worse on most environment impacts."
USGBC and LEED should "develop guidelines for approval of innovation credits that move the industry forward," the report concludes. "Recognizing that there are many possible ways to address this challenge, the capabilities and motivation of the marketplace should be engaged as a resource.”
USGBC has failed to live up to its claim of "technical rigor' in LEED credits as well as its own procedures for balance, fairness and "consensus." It has ignored scientific studies (including its own TSAC review), as well as studies for the European Commission and others, that found PVC’s life-cycle health and environmental performance as good as, or better than, the performance of competing materials.
So why is LEED trying to blacklist the material?
Well, maybe it’s important to understand a little bit more about LEED’s “founding founder” Robert Watson, a man who infamously said “Buildings are far and away the worst thing humans do to the environment.”
Yes, LEED was founded by a ardent environmentalist, a “pioneer” of the modern green building movement, which might imply that the program has an agenda. It would also explain why LEED would propose phasing out a material that even the USGBC said was preferable to expensive and unreliable alternatives such as copper.
But for those familiar with Watson, this isn't that shocking. After all, this is the same man who, while acting as an adviser on green projects and energy use to the People's Republic of China, hailed the country’s new consumption tax on chopsticks, saying "Taxing chopsticks is just the beginning. The ability to enforce the code on energy efficiency and environmental preservation is key."
What does it all mean ?
It means that American businesses that buy and sell the widely consumed and economically priced material are now at the mercy of a government agency that's considering proposals put forward by a non-profit group that uses a highly-valued ratings system created by a fervent environmentalist.
Does any of this sound like a good idea to anyone?