What Buy Clean means for the concrete industry

And how concrete producers can capitalize on the federal government’s changing policy landscape

In December 2021, the White House issued an executive order focused on reducing emissions across federal government properties. The order introduces a “Buy Clean” meant to reduce carbon emissions arising from the production or manufacturing and use of building materials. For the first time, suppliers of concrete to federal projects will be required to report the carbon content of their bids. Just last month, it was announced that this requirement will extend to Departments of Transportation and Defense construction.

Taken together, these agencies represent a huge market for concrete. The scope and scale of federal procurement is also likely to create spinoff requirements at the state and local levels. In fact, several states have already proposed or enacted their own equivalent . Considering this growing attention from policymakers, it will be increasingly important for concrete producers to be able to accurately track and report on emissions associated with their products to continue to be able to access these markets. 

Why focus on building materials?
Carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions are created during the production of building materials, such as wood, steel and concrete. These emissions arise during the extraction of raw materials from the environment, from the energy used to process or manufacture products, and from transportation of raw and finished materials. Taken together, the manufacturing of these materials is a significant emissions source—currently accounting for as much as 11 percent of global emissions.1

Concrete’s strength, resilience and versatility make it indispensable for infrastructure. As such, the government is among the biggest consumers of concrete. Combined purchasing from all levels of government account for almost half of concrete use by volume.1 But, concrete and its critical, main binding material—portland cement—currently contribute roughly 7 percent of carbon emissions worldwide, making it one of the largest emissions sources in the built environment.1 These statistics are what is driving federal action and are what the Buy Clean policy aims to resolve.

What do concrete producers need to know about the federal government’s Buy Clean policy?

  • Environmental product declarations required. Starting in 2023, concrete producers will be required to produce Type III environmental product declarations (EPDs) to be able to continue to bid on federal projects. A Type III EPD provides an independent life-cycle assessment of a product and the emissions created from its manufacture, enabling transparent disclosure and reporting on the impact of the concrete proposed for use. Generating these Type III EPDs requires hiring specialized service providers to produce and independently verify declaration data. This creates a cost burden to compete, which will particularly affect independent and family-owned businesses.
  • Federal projects will prioritize sustainable concrete. The Buy Clean policy simply requires the reporting of carbon content, but this policy could also set the stage for the preferential selection of lower-carbon products in future federal projects. This will give producers that adopt lower-carbon processes and technologies a clear long-term advantage.
  • Buy Clean recognizes the importance of climate resilient infrastructure. On the one hand, the Buy Clean policy names concrete, along with steel, as a priority material for the reduction of embodied carbon. On the other hand, it acknowledges the need for climate resilient infrastructure. Concrete is built to last and is ideal for withstanding extreme weather and improving the safety and energy efficiency of buildings. Although this policy is targeting decarbonization of materials and products, it also acknowledges that concrete will continue to be an important material as we design and build for a more uncertain future. 

How serious should concrete producers take EPDs and the federal Buy Clean policy?
If federal contracts are important to your business, EPD submittals will soon no longer be optional. Concrete producers should also expect more states and cities to follow the federal government’s lead with similar requirements. Buy Clean policies are a global trend, with the private sector and federal, state, and local governments increasingly using their purchasing power to encourage a shift to lower-carbon options. The interest in industrial decarbonization is fueled by several broader trends that are not going away either.

The U.S. is among a growing movement of countries, sectors and industries around the globe that have committed to a net-zero emissions economy by no later than 2050. Construction-related organizations, including Architecture 2030, Structural Engineers 2050 Challenge, the World Green Building Council and Carbon Leadership Forum, are on a mission to usher in net-zero buildings by 2050. 

Our own industry leaders—including the Global Cement and Concrete Association, European Committee for Concrete and Portland Cement Association in North America—have mapped out plans to reduce embodied carbon in concrete by 40 percent to 50 percent through 2030 and to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. As an industry, we have recognized the global demand for greener solutions and the need for industry to be a partner at the table. The pathway to a lower carbon future for this industry is clear, but it will be key that the costs and challenges of this transition be borne proportionately. 

How can concrete producers prepare for and respond to the Buy Clean Policy?
Get prepared to produce EPDs. If you currently work on federal projects, now is the time to research EPD providers and put in place the framework and resources you’ll need when the new RFP requirements begin in 2023. Two well-known EPD suppliers that serve the concrete industry are Athena Sustainable Materials Institute and Climate Earth. Your local concrete or builders’ association will also be able to recommend other vendors. 

Analyze and optimize your production. EPDs will create new visibility into the environmental impact of concrete products. You’ll want to investigate your options for being best in class in your region. Consider which processes, materials, and technologies make sense for your business; some options include optimizing aggregate gradations, using portland-limestone cement (Type IP), increasing the levels of supplementary cementitious materials (SCMs) you use, and/or incorporating innovative technologies such as CO2 mineralization or other carbon capture, utilization and storage technologies. Many of these strategies can be combined to achieve even lower carbon products. 

Support your industry associations in their efforts to inform and engage with the government. Your state and national associations are a key voice representing the industry’s interests to the federal government. Considering the new cost that concrete producers must incur to create the EPD documentation requested by the federal government, it will be important to advocate for such files to be accessible to and affordable for all producers. Ultimately, producing EPDs is for the public good, and cost barriers could create an unlevel playing field. The states of New York, New Jersey, and California, for example, have proposed providing a tax subsidy to producers to offset some of the cost of EPD preparation, which is a model we believe the federal government could and should consider. Concrete producers want to be good partners in taking positive climate action, but climate affects us all and producers should not solely bear the cost for doing the right thing.

Ozinga Ready Mix Concrete is among CarbonCure process users issuing EPDs reflecting mixes’ carbon dioxide capture and mineralization.

How can you leverage Buy Clean policies and EPDs for your long-term success? 
Ultimately, the sustainability of concrete will determine the sustainability of the concrete industry. The more sustainable concrete becomes, the better the industry will fare at protecting, or growing, its market share versus other materials such as lumber or steel for private sector, federal, regional and municipal projects. 

At CarbonCure Technologies, we’re proud to have partnered with producers around the globe who are already taking steps to improve the environmental—and economic—competitiveness of their products. These early adopters of the CarbonCure CO2 utilization and sequestration process recognize that, increasingly, it is not enough just to get the job done. Simply getting the job will soon require all producers to adopt climate solutions. Between now and then, concrete producers have an opportunity to differentiate themselves as industry leaders and champions of innovation ahead of the impending change.

1 Carbon Leadership Forum

2 International Energy Agency

Eric Dunford is Senior Director of Government Affairs, CarbonCure Technologies in Halifax, Nova Scotia. CarbonCure’s carbon dioxide mineralization process suits ready mixed and manufactured concrete production.