Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a useful tool to evaluate the environmental impacts of a product. Unfortunately, there can be confusion around LCAs for wood products due to inconsistencies regarding what the commissioning organization might include or omit from their assessment, a lack of transparency, and unclear assumptions. Setting boundaries for what an LCA should measure and what it can exclude for any given product is determined by a Product Category Rule (PCR). In 2016, the Environmental Paper Network finalized new Product Category Rules (PCRs) for Roundwood, Pulp, and Paper Products that establish transparent and science-based rules regarding what an assessment of the environmental impacts of paper should include. This framework was developed with multi-stakeholder input and is therefore the most comprehensive – it  considers all factors affecting environmental performance, including ecosystem impacts on biodiversity, biogenic carbon, and forest carbon sequestration. We encourage organizations that are conducting a life cycle assessment to utilize these Product Category Rules in order to ensure accuracy and consistency.

To ensure that any product assessment or claim is fully transparent and inclusive of full-cost carbon accounting, ask the following questions:

  • Is the claim based on a fully transparent study that included a multi-stakeholder review panel inclusive of environmental experts? If not, then it may not account for the full scope of impacts.
  • What is the scope of the assessment that the claim is based on? If it is based solely on energy use at the mill then it may not account for the full scope of impacts.
  • Is the claim based on a study with full-cost carbon accounting, which includes transparent accounting for biogenic carbon, including land use change and carbon loss at the time of logging, and the utilization of biomass (wood and wood-derived waste) as an energy source? If not, then it may not account for the full scope of impacts.

Currently, many LCAs commissioned by industry sources are not considering the entire scope of climate impacts, including short-lived climate pollutants, like emissions of black carbon, which are the second highest contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, many assessments omit biogenic carbon losses from the forest, resulting in presenting only a partial picture of the actual climate impacts. Forests store large amounts of carbon in the soil and in tree roots, branches, and leaves. Many recent LCAs do not consider stored carbon that is lost during timber harvest, assume that all forestry is “carbon neutral,” and create carbon accounting scenarios that assume the forest will be replanted. However, scientific opinion is clear that climate change is too urgent of a problem to make assumptions that trees will eventually sequester carbon at the same rate as cut trees release it. Even if trees are replanted, the timeline for their growth and carbon removals is far too long given the rapid acceleration of climate change. Likewise, hundreds of scientists have stated that it is not accurate or based in science to assume that burning wood for energy has no effect at all on the climate. In order to effectively reduce our emissions, we must first account for them accurately. 

Another important distinction to note in assessments comparing virgin to recycled products is that the application of different allocation methods can result in different impacts for the same materials and greatly influence results. The open loop recycling methodology used in some assessments makes assumptions about previous and subsequent life cycles and allocates the burdens with a suggested percentage between the first and the second use of the material, and also assigns credits based on future processes. This does not reflect real burdens that are emitted and embeds a high degree of uncertainty, therefore results should be interpreted with caution. The 100-0 cut-off allocation approach used in the Paper Calculator considers the environmental impacts of one life cycle of the product and ensures that a product is only assigned impacts directly caused by that product. 

Recycled paper is not only better for our climate. It also uses less water, less overall energy, diverts solid waste, and protects biodiversity. This is important to remember given that the planet is experiencing simultaneous and interconnected warming and biodiversity crises, which have similar impacts on human welfare, and need to be tackled urgently, together, say scientists from both the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Our consumer choices have an impact and we must stop extracting so much from the Earth. We have to use less, as well as maximize the environmental and economic benefits that come with recycling by ensuring that there are strong markets for the products made from recyclables. When you buy recycled, you are not only lowering your carbon footprint, you are making sure that the paper and packaging you put in your recycling bin are actually made back into new products – and advancing a truly circular economy.