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Assessing the life cycle of renewable products

Have you ever tried to figure out which product or material is the best alternative for the environment? This one is made from renewable materials, but that one consumes less energy in production – how do I know which is better?

You may have heard of carbon footprint calculations and other ways to measure the environmental impacts of products. Many of these calculations are based on the life cycle assessment (LCA) which analyses the selected life cycle stages of a material, product, or service, revealing its potential environmental or human health impacts.

”Life cycle assessment can be used when designing a new product or evaluating an exisisting one,” says Tiina Keskisaari, Senior Manager of LCA at Stora Enso. ”The process helps companies understand where the emissions related to their products come from. This helps us at Stora Enso improve the way we operate and create renewable materials and products that are better for people and the environment.”

Depending on the end goal, an LCA can cover all or only selected stages of a product’s life cycle:

LCA of Stora Enso productsStages of a Stora Enso product’s life cycle.

LCAs also make it easier to understand the environmental and human health impacts of competing products. A Stora Enso customer, for example, can use the information to study the environmental performance of different packaging or construction materials, and to make decisions that help them reach their own sustainability goals. The EU has also recognised the benefits of LCAs and is currently exploring how to use footprint methods in union-wide policies.

The making of an LCA

A lot of work goes into a final LCA report. At Stora Enso, LCAs may look at many impacts such as resource consumption, contribution to global warming, potential health impacts, ocean pollution, or demonstrated recyclability. The process can be very long and includes different stages and choices.

”Because our materials and products often end up as part of another product – the packaging material of a juice carton, for example – we typically conduct partial LCAs that cover the parts of the value chain that we can affect,” Keskisaari says. ”For consumer board products, we often leave out the converting, filling and printing, product use, and end-of-life stages from our calculations but may sometimes include them depending on the purpose of the study. The impacts of the extraction of our renewable raw material, wood, are of course always included.”

The entire process, including the results, is thoroughly reviewed by Stora Enso experts. When we make LCA studies that include comparisons, for example between competing materials, the results and process are also reviewed by independent external experts.

“It’s a vigorous process of gathering data, processing it further, interpreting results, and evaluating our work as we go,” Keskisaari says. “But it gives us and our customers invaluable information about product features and process parts that perform well but – perhaps more importantly – also those that need improvement. We can only make changes if we know what needs changing.”

A life cycle assessment (LCA) is a compilation and evaluation of the inputs, outputs, and the potential environmental impacts of a product system throughout its life cycle. An LCA considers attributes or aspects of the natural environment, human health, or resources, identifying an environmental issue giving cause for concern.

Source: ISO-EN 14040 standard