The environmental impacts that can result from making forest and paper products are impossible to ignore. Millions of acres of forests are logged each year and, as a result, threatened species may be affected, forest carbon storage can be reduced, and streams and rivers can be silted and polluted. In addition, significant amounts of energy and water consumption, effluent release and solid waste occur in the manufacturing of wood and paper products (though these impacts can be greatly reduced through incorporating recycled content). Proper understanding and analysis of these environmental impacts are critical in order to find ways to avoid or mitigate them, and to accurately compare and choose products and suppliers that demonstrate environmental leadership.
To this end, many stakeholders have sought greater transparency into these products’ impacts, and disclosure tools addressing environmental performance, such as life cycle assessment (LCA), have become commonplace. For producers, LCA can inform decisions that will improve the environmental performance of their products and tell a compelling storyline of sustainability progress. For purchasers, LCA can provide a quantitative basis to identify and procure high-performing products. The Environmental Paper Network’s Paper Calculator is an excellent example of a credible, transparent and independent application of LCA to paper products. The Paper Calculator launched in 2005 based on the results of the groundbreaking Paper Task Force Report, and is available for free online to generate environmental impact estimates based on national averages or by entering customized data.
As with any analysis or model, LCA can and must be improved and expanded as new data and scientific understanding become available. Today, many LCAs lack consistency and comprehensiveness, preventing them from realizing their full potential. These conventional LCAs:
- Leave out 2/3 of environmental impacts
- Can have very high uncertainty levels
- Lack standardized protocols, preventing meaningful comparisons
- Use climate accounting metrics based in 20-year-old science
- Require excessive data collection
- Aren’t capable of revealing supply chain “hot spots”
As a result of these shortcomings, conventional LCAs can misconstrue differences in the environmental performance of different sources of wood, the full impacts of virgin papers compared to the benefits of recycled paper sources, and of wood compared to steel and concrete used in construction. For producers of forest and paper products, this obscures information and policies that could achieve improvements in environmental performance. And for purchasers, it does not provide reliable information about the environmental performance of different procurement options.
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These shortcomings have led to concerns about LCA use among ENGOs, academics, scientists and even large companies. For example, in May 2016, WWF released a white paper stating, "Many in the conservation community [...] assert that LCA does not adequately represent the providing ecosystem in early stages of forest products." In a 2013 paper, the Sierra Club Forest Certification & Green Building Team found that "current conventional LCA studies of wood products are seriously flawed because, among other things, they fail to accurately take into consideration the environmental impacts of timber harvesting."
There is a new path forward to improve the practice of LCA. An innovative new LCA framework has been introduced for consideration through the American National Standards Institute, and in new Product Category Rules (PCRs) focused on wood and paper. A coalition has also formed within the International Standards Organization to propose that this LCA framework be included in revisions to the ISO 14044 standard. This framework would greatly improve conventional LCAs, and provides the most complete and accurate environmental performance data available to date. This new LCA framework:
- Considers all factors affecting environmental performance, including ecosystem impacts affecting biodiversity and forest carbon storage
- Includes detailed algorithms providing high levels of relevance and certainty in results
- Employs a standardized methodology for meaningful apples-to-apples comparisons
- Is based on a public methodology available for use by any LCA practitioner
- Relies on publicly available data sources to draw a robust picture of impacts, making it efficient and practical to implement
This new LCA framework has broad stakeholder support, and the development of the new PCRs establishes a standardized methodology in the public domain that any organization can use for knowledge gathering and transparency into the impacts of any product, including wood and paper. The PCR development committee includes representatives from ENGOs, industry, academia, and other LCA experts. SCS Global Services is the Program Operator and the process is being organized by the Environmental Paper Network North America, an independent not-for-profit coalition with diverse expertise in forest and paper sustainability issues. Throughout the development of the PCRs, a variety of external stakeholders were consulted, along with multiple rounds of public outreach, including a 90-day public comment period and dissemination to key stakeholders.
The new Product Category Rules are the cutting edge in product transparency for wood and paper products. Producers can use them to analyze, improve, and market the environmental performance of their products. And purchasers can have confidence that this is the best new tool available for understanding the environmental performance of competing products. We are pleased that there has been extensive interest and positive engagement in the development of these PCRs, which will set a new benchmark for how LCAs for wood and paper should be completed.
To learn more about the ENGO support for this new LCA framework, and why your company could benefit from this tool, contact EPN. And for more about utilizing the LCA framework, contact Tobias Schultz.
 Product Category Rules define standard approaches for developing LCAs for specific products. These Product Category Rules define scoping, data, and methodology requirements, for LCAs applied to wood and paper products.