What You Need To Know About Green Insulation: Green Seal’s New Standard

The global growth of green building is accelerating, driven by benefits ranging from health and comfort to image, branding, and tax breaks.  More than half of the institutional and commercial construction in the U.S. is expected to be green in 2016, and significant growth is forecasted in developing markets. The main benefit from green building is lower operating costs from savings in energy, waste, water and maintenance; energy efficiency depends heavily on insulation. The challenge purchasers face in identifying green insulation products that are functional and cost-effective is made even more complex by the limited information available about the sustainability of insulation materials currently offered in the U.S. market. Green Seal is issuing an environmental leadership standard for insulation materials to help the market identify green insulation materials that work well.

A Variety of Insulation Products for Different Uses. Each type of insulation product is often the most appropriate choice for a particular application, so cross-substitution among insulation categories is often impractical. Insulation materials are chosen primarily for effectiveness at resisting heat transfer, but also based on cost, ease of installation, water resistance, load bearing capability, or breathability. As with all high-performing products, some insulation materials require an investment of energy and resources, but they all provide significant environmental benefits over their lifetime, including lower greenhouse gas emissions, cleaner air, reduced heart/lung disease, significant improvements in indoor comfort, and reductions in use of resources and fossil fuels, burden on power grids, and energy bills.

Purpose of Green Seal’s Standards. Green Seal’s standards are intended to set challenging, yet achievable, requirements that reflect environmental leadership among products currently available in the U.S. or strongly emerging in the market. The preferred approach is to avoid toxic chemicals where practicable, but even so, there are abundant examples where hazardous substances still have to be part of green offerings (such as floor strippers or fluorescent bulbs). In these cases, they should be handled in the safest manner possible, providing protection to users and occupants.

Market Need for a Green Seal Standard for Insulation Materials

Credible information about the sustainability of insulation materials is limited, even among resources such as third-party labels.

  • Self-Declared Environmental Claims are often not taken at face value by purchasers and may not address the complexity of all significant impacts of a product.
  • Single Attribute Labels, such as for VOC emissions or recycled content, do not cover other significant impacts across all life-cycle stages.
  • Environmental and Health Product Declarations (EPDs & HPDs) are important for increasing transparency in the industry, but are not a particularly useful decision tool for most purchasers because their data still needs a lot of technical interpretation, and they lack context for benchmarking leadership products.

Green Seal’s new standard is the only up-to-date Type I ecolabel standard developed specifically for the U.S. market. This ensures criteria that are independently derived and verified, cover significant impacts across all life cycle-stages of the product, and allow non-technical purchasers to make informed decisions.

Significant Environmental Issues for Architectural Insulation

Proper Function. Sustainable products must work well enough to meet purchaser needs. Functional performance can be ensured by meeting industry specifications, or by testing against a benchmark product.

Climate Change. In general, all insulation materials save more energy and greenhouse gas emissions over their lifetime than was invested in their production. Foam insulation is considered leadership when it uses blowing agents with low Global Warming Potential.

Recycled Content. Using recycled materials reduces the use of resources, diverts waste from landfills, and generally requires less energy during processing. (See EPA’s Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines).

Significant Health Issues for Architectural Insulation

Exposure to Hazardous Substances. Once insulation is covered, it may still potentially affect occupants through the release of VOCs and other chemicals of concern associated with negative health and environmental impacts. Leadership products avoid the halogenated flame retardant HBCD and restrict VOC emissions to limits set by the State of California.

Installation Procedures and Protective Equipment. Installation according to industry-accepted procedures (see ASTM or sector-specific industry groups), preferably by trained professionals, ensures that materials will function as intended, prevents premature failure, and helps protect installers and occupants from hazards such as airborne particles from loose-fill, skin irritation from fiberglass, and respiratory exposure to raw materials in spray polyurethane foam.

Recommended protective equipment includes safety glasses, long sleeves, face masks, gloves, supplied-air respirators, and full-body suits, depending on the type of insulation. Additional protective measures include restricted work areas or waiting times of at least 24 hours before unprotected occupants may enter.

Spray Polyurethane Foam (SPF), when installed properly, is a non-toxic and high-performing insulant and one of the most effective insulation materials available. However, it requires more attention because it is not manufactured under factory conditions, and because exposure to the primary raw material (MDI) may cause asthma. Since no available products can substitute for SPF in many applications and no MDI-free SPF technologies have emerged, this is an example of a product that provides significant environmental and health benefits despite containing a hazardous material. It is, therefore, important to follow proper procedures and protective measures.

Leadership SPF products use ultra-low GWP blowing agents, provide instructions for installation and protective measures, provide warning labels for possible asthmagenicity, and sell only to trained installation professionals.

Benefits of Insulation Materials that Meet GS-54

Compared with other choices on the market, environmentally preferable insulation materials deliver clear benefits, including climate change reduction, strictly limited hazardous chemicals and VOC emissions, recycled content, responsible packaging, installation instructions, energy savings, improved air quality, and greater comfort for building occupants.

More details on the standard and the issues it addresses are available on our website. Choosing a green insulation product can be very challenging; our standard is intended to provide a simple, yet credible, choice that covers the major issues.  Manufacturers who have leadership products are invited to get them certified, giving purchasers an easy way to identify and purchase them.

Daniel Pedersen 

Vice President of Science & Standards for Green Seal

Daniel provides scientific and technological expertise and leads the creation and revision of Green Seal’s standards. He has over 20 years of experience in environmental science, research, fieldwork, chemical analysis, certification, laboratory accreditation and education. Prior to joining Green Seal in 2012, he worked as Director of Environment and Sustainability at a private Certification Body, with clients in the industrial, private, public and academic sectors. Previously he taught Atmospheric Chemistry at the college level, lectured widely on environmental issues, and directed air quality research at Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He is a certified lead auditor for ISO 9001, 14001 & 17025, studied in M.I.T’s Technology & Policy Program, and holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering from M.I.T and a Bachelor of Science in Engineering from Swarthmore College. His personal interests include family, cycling, gourmet cooking, singing, and stage performance.


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