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Meeting with an individual verifier: Robert Epsom at Atkins

As experienced life cycle analysis practitioners, Atkins provides support for the development of EPDs and also carries out life cycle analysis studies for clients around the world. We spoke to Robert Epsom, senior consultant and business lead for life cycle analysis, who was one of the first UK individual verifiers to be approved under the International EPD® System. Now with three individually approved verifiers, Atkins is looking to have additional consultants approved soon.

What is your role as an individual verifier in the International EPD® System?
Primarily it is to provide an independent critical review of the underlying life cycle analysis data, the data handling and EPD document itself so that it can be officially registered within the International EPD® System as a certified EPD.

EPD verification isn’t a pass or fail process; EPDs are designed to make a difference and benefit the environment. My role as a verifier and life cycle analysis practitioner is to support companies in a two-way process to ensure their calculations and declaration are compliant so their EPD is publicly listed.

I also work to improve the verification process, acting as a stakeholder in the future development of LCA/EPD, which includes the EU PEF/OEF Pilot and a range of the PEFCRs/OEFCRs.  

Atkins recently became a founding member of the EU ECO Platform, so I’ll be part of their three technical groups working alongside CEN TC 350 (sustainability of construction works). I am also on the working group updating the ISO standards for GHG Management (ISO 14064/65), which will keep us up to date with key changes relating to one of the main impact categories reported in an EPD.

What are the main challenges when verifying EPD and the underlying life cycle analysis studies?
One is a misconception that verification has to be performed in the country of origin, but Atkins has verified EPDs for a broad range of product sectors for clients based in Switzerland, USA and the Middle East. Geography is no barrier.

Also, because of the ongoing development of LCA/EPDs, a lack of consistency causes confusion, particularly PCRs which may be open to interpretation or too much flexibility in cut-off criteria and assumptions. This is why initiatives such as ECO Platform and standards such as EN 15804 have been established.

What is the current status of EPDs in the UK?
The construction sector is leading the way in EPDs, largely due to legislative and non-legislative drivers. For example, British companies wishing to sell construction products in France will find it difficult because EPDs for construction and decorative products are mandated under Grenelle Law. This trend spreading across Europe is evident from the introduction of a standardised product category rule for construction products (EN 15804). Also, green building certification schemes such as BREEAM and LEED now award higher ratings for using construction materials where life cycle analysis data or EPDs are available.

Most corporations now accept that the next logical step is to move beyond carbon and consider the bigger picture: full life cycle analysis. This is why EPDs are rising up the agenda.

What keeps corporate investors and stakeholders awake at night?
Three things are of increasing concern to corporate investors and stakeholders: energy, waste and resources. Measuring the impact of organisations, products, projects and services, identifying areas for improvement, and communicating this via a medium, such as an EPD, is right at the top of the corporate agenda. Whether you call it sustainability, environmental footprinting, circular economy or life cycle analysis, there are clear cost savings to be made and opportunities to improve business and environmental performance.

Because we are moving towards a circular economy and a society that pays for the service a product provides, rather than responsibility of material ownership. For example, a tablet computer has up to 40 elements locked inside the physical product. Some might be conflict materials, others might be resource constrained. But because our product life cycle is currently linear, the consumer purchases the product, uses it and then disposes of it.

The circular economy moves life cycle analysis towards an even more cyclical way of thinking and encourages businesses to take responsibility for their products. Instead of simply selling a tablet computer (which contains a range of rare earth metals), companies would retain ownership of the many materials which constitute the product and design it for disassembly.

So when the product is damaged or an updated model is required the manufacture will provide maintenance or a more technically advanced (and probably more efficient) replacement. The old product will re-enter the manufacturer’s process, changing material which was destined to be a waste product into a feed stock, by-product or a recycled material.

This model already works with our set top boxes, mobile phones and could soon be applied to white goods. Consumers pay for the service, not the rare materials locked inside. If this thinking gains traction and consumers are educated to see the benefits, we will have closed the loop. The mass balance will begin to make sense and we will start to use our resources sustainably.

Life cycle analysis and EPDs are very much leading the way in this rapidly evolving industry and will evolve with time to encourage and enable businesses to close the loop and think about the mass balance.

How did you become an individual verifier?
I joined Atkins to support with their group-wide carbon critical design initiative, which was a unique and forward thinking way of applying my degree in chemical/process engineering. I quickly realised that we needed to look at the bigger picture and consider the full range of environmental impacts and resource consumption.

Atkins supported the growth of this business and is the reason why we were the first UK verifiers to be approved under the International EPD® System. With Atkins support, I now look to continue to grow this capability towards more circular economy thinking and also provide clients with solutions to manage and mitigate the findings from life cycle analysis and in particular EPDs.