Environmental and energy balances of wood products and substitutes

Recommended research topics and projects

According to ISO 14040, LCA can assist in:

  • decision-making in industry, governmental or non-governmental organizations (strategic planning, priority setting, product or process design or redesign);
  • identifying opportunities to improve the environmental aspects of products at various points in their life cycle; and
  • marketing (e.g. an environmental claim, ecolabelling scheme or environmental product declaration).

Decision-making, improvement of the environmental aspects of products and marketing are in reality the highlights for the future LCA research in the forest products sector. Different society groups (e.g. industry, governmental and non-governmental organizations) show interest in LCA studies and at least for those LCA results that meet their particular expectations.

The industry can use LCA for marketing of certain products or product categories. The activities in the last decade show that many LCA studies were conducted in different sectors and branches, e.g. in the car industry, packaging, PVC producing industry, etc., but rarely in the wood industry. Depending on the management and marketing policy, the results were used either for the promotion of certain products or materials (e.g. PVC, aluminium) or for the evaluation of internal material and energy flow during the production process. The latter one contributes to analysis of weak points, bottlenecks and their possible elimination.

In the future, LCA, combined with other tools (e.g. cost analysis), shall assist the enterprises in:

  • finding shortages such as bottlenecks, weaknesses in material and energy flow; and
  • in developing improved ways for an ecologically sound management.

Governments can use LCA in the context of their environmental policy and sponsors’ projects implemented by or through its agencies5. Among the non-governmental organizations, two categories of interest groups should have the most interest in LCA reports, organizations representing the interests of consumers and those working for a better environment.

In Central and Northern Europe, many LCA-related studies have been carried out during the last decade. In other parts of the world, and especially in developing countries, the environmental aspects also have to be taken into account. In these countries, LCA could be used to underline the advantages of sustainable management of forests and to support the local forest products industries. The interest of developed countries for environmentally sound products is increasing and it is, therefore, expected that in the future the export of various products from developing to developed countries will increasingly depend on their ecological quality.

It is recommended that for future research programmes in the forest products sector, efforts should be focused on the following:

1. LCA of various solid wood products:
The studies shall include the life cycle phases of forest management (wood production), sawmilling, production of certain products (e.g. furniture, building, etc.), lifetime, dismantling and recycling, disposal (thermal utilization).

2. LCA of wood-based panels:
Various types of wood-based panels (e.g. plywood, particle board, OSB, MDF, blockboard, etc.) are produced for outdoor and indoor uses as well as in supporting and non-supporting elements. The building sector and the furniture and packaging industries are the major customers of wood panels. LCAs currently exist for particle board and MDF production including the preliminary stages, and LCA studies are recommended for other panel types and particularly for OSB.

3. Selection of products:
a) Due to the fact that a considerable part of wood is consumed in the building sector, LCA of family houses and buildings, in which timber is an important material, should have the priority.
b) For furniture manufacturing, besides wood, other materials such as lacquers, paints, adhesives, synthetics, etc., are also used and, therefore, even if wood is an environmentally sound material, other materials and especially the chemically-based ones used as components can be crucial to human beings as well as to the environment. The LCA for furniture can be the first step to identify the possible toxicity and the next step would be the toxicity reduction or elimination.

Principally, LCA is a useful method to evaluate objectively the current environmental policy and to improve it for the benefit of people and environment. It provides data to the producer and consumer organizations as well as to policy-makers. In other words, LCA functions as an environmental tool for testing products and processes and for providing guidelines for the future policy of society and governments.

5 In Germany, for example, the Federal Environment Office (das Umweltbundesamt) or similar institutions belonging to the Federal States.

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