The growing intensity of climate change adds new urgency for educational institutions to specify low-carbon materials and integrate greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) reductions into their overall practices and missions.
Typically, conversations around the development of positive learning environments outline a few obvious aspects: fostering safety, enhancing indoor air quality, improving speech intelligibility and reducing absenteeism. This can all be improved through careful material choice. However, the power of purchasing decisions regarding impacts on public health is often overlooked.
Embodied carbon and its impact
According to the World Health Organization and the CDC, climate change is the greatest threat to human health of the 21st century. The building and construction sector is responsible for nearly 40 per cent of global GHG emissions, so it plays a vital role in eliminating carbon dioxide emissions.
There are two main boundary sets associated with buildings. Embodied carbon includes the impacts associated with materials: raw material extraction, manufacturing, transportation and the construction process. Operational carbon includes the GHG emissions associated during the use of a building.
While it is crucial to reduce both emission types, reducing embodied carbon is the most urgent opportunity. This is because the manufacturing of building materials makes up 11 per cent of total GHG emissions, which cannot be reduced over time.
Choosing low-carbon building materials
By choosing vendors that align with the school’s sustainability vision, mission and values, the school moves the needle in favour of carbon neutrality. In doing so, institutions are closer to meeting their own goals while also reducing the emissions impact of their projects and spaces.
What’s more, schools can establish a model for other vendors to follow, placing the economic demand for responsible practices onto the suppliers and making low-carbon products the standard—not the exception.
For an upcoming renovation project, think about insisting on building materials with high-recycled content, which many manufacturers offer. This also supports the efforts to achieve LEED accreditation.
A product’s total recycled content comes from a combination of pre- and post-consumer content. In fact, products may contain a mix of post-consumer recycled content (materials collected from the waste stream after their intended use), pre-consumer recycled content (waste material generated from a manufacturing process), virgin materials (resources extracted from nature in their raw form) and bio-based materials (substances derived from living, or once-living, organisms).
When considering products with recycled content, pay attention to the types of recycled materials that are in them. For example, recycled plastic (like the nylon in carpet) reduces climate impact more than some other recycled materials you might find (like limestone), since virgin nylon is very energy intensive to make.
Taking one big step toward a reduced carbon footprint
Flooring can be one of the largest contributors to the carbon footprint of interior renovation projects, and schools should take responsibility for the embodied carbon in their flooring supply chain by specifying carbon neutral flooring products.
Manufacturers and specifiers who put a product into a space should also have a plan for those products when they leave the space. Ask if products taken back are actually recycled, what percentage of the old product’s materials can be repurposed, how much of a new product is actually produced and what third party verifies a recycling process claim.
By choosing low-carbon products, education institutions can help restore the health of the planet and reverse global warming, while placing a call to action on other building material manufacturers to shift their operations and consider their opportunity to foster positive impacts.
Lisa Conway is the vice-president of sustainability at Interface, a global flooring manufacturer. She is passionate about bringing awareness to the interconnectedness of environmental sustainability and human health. Along with her team, she is responsible for regional activation of the company’s mission: Climate Take Back. To drive understanding around the impact of carbon on human health, Lisa and her team provide educational programming on the need for transparency and prioritization of embodied carbon in specifications within the building industry. She co-founded the Materials Carbon Action Network (materialsCAN) in 2018 to mobilize this effort. She also serves on the sustainable advisory board for Penn State University’s Smeal College of Business and is on the board of directors of the non-profit Building Transparency.