These days it seems that everyone is talking about life cycle assessment. Whether it’s in relation to a specific product, a new process or technology, or as the backbone to a growing array of environmental certification schemes, that three-letter acronym – LCA – seems to be everywhere.

It wasn’t always like this – back in ‘the bad old days’ manufacturing decisions were based on more intrinsically relatable concepts, such as cost efficiency, material availability and consumer demand. But today, sustainability has been added to the mix and for many it’s not always immediately obvious exactly what that means. We are told that we should be creating more forest cover, but also that we should be using more wood; we hear that transporting wood pellets across oceans to burn in power stations gives us clean energy; and we are confused about the relative sustainability of myriad manufacturing trade-offs, such as that between processing intensity and service life, or between modification and recyclability. How do we weigh up these trade-offs quantitatively and methodically? The answer is LCA.

Originally developed in the 1970s, LCA has only really come to prominence in the last 15 years. Today it has become the prerequisite approach for certification schemes such as Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and the EU’s highly ambitious Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) initiative, which we are likely to hear more about in coming years.

LCA methodology is based around the concept of lifecycle thinking – the idea that a product’s environmental footprint is associated not just with activities during its production, but also with the extraction or growth of its raw materials; transportation; in-life use; and ultimately its end-of-life disposal.

LCA models this lifecycle using a systematic approach that starts by building a detailed mass and energy balance of the product system in question. This balance accounts for all inputs and outputs associated with the lifecycle, including not only raw materials and process energies, but also any co-products, waste streams, emissions and so on. This inventory forms the backbone of the analysis, which is then modelled further, typically using an LCA software package (for example, SimaPro or GaBi) and licensed lifecycle inventory (LCI) databases, such as Ecoinvent. It is these databases, which contain hugely complex datasets, that model the environmental impacts specific to each item on the mass and energy balance.

LCA results may be presented in a variety of formats and the terms cradle-to-gate and cradle-to-grave are commonplace but may cause confusion. This distinction simply relates to the point along the lifecycle at which results are reported – cradle-to-gate studies report footprints accumulated up to the point at which the product leaves the factory gate (ie when it is passed across to a customer), while cradle-to-grave studies report impacts accumulated across the entire product lifetime.

For the wood-based products industry, one of the most compelling aspects of LCA analyses is the benefit associated with biogenic carbon. When considering greenhouse gas emissions (ie the carbon footprint) associated with wood-based products, the biogenic carbon content of the material can represent a significant advantage, when compared against fossil based materials such as plastics. Considering that the dry weight of wood is approximately 50% carbon, and that this carbon is taken from the atmosphere and ultimately returned to it at end-of-life, this can represent a significant advantage to the eco-profile of such products when compared to alternatives composed from other materials.

LCA is likely to play an increasingly important role in procurement and design protocols in coming years. Further, its scope is likely to expand with the development of a relatively new social-LCA approach. Wood-based products are well-placed to take advantage of this trend, especially where existing fossil-based additives can be replaced with sustainably produced bio-based alternatives and recyclability can be built-in.

At the BioComposites Centre, we have been working in LCA for over a decade and are available to work with you should LCA be something you are keen to explore further.