SFI, FSC, ESP, ECC, GreenPoint, CalGreen, Greener Product. The list of “green” certification programs or “green” products goes on and on. A whole new industry has been created to do third-party verifications of compliance with each certification, and the rules for each are different. No wonder the marketplace is confused and frustrated. No wonder the public has become more suspect of any and all environmental claims.

There are two tiny lights at the end of the tunnel that show some promise of standardizing environmental certification for wood products. Life cycle analysis (LCA) and environmental product declarations (EPD) have both been in use for decades but application to our industry and our products is relatively new and still being sorted out as to their appropriate use and how they can be applied.

A life cycle assessment or analysis is a technique to assess environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product’s life from “cradle to grave”—from raw material extraction, through materials processing, manufacture, distribution, use, repair and maintenance, and disposal or recycling. LCAs avoid a narrow assessment of environmental concerns by 1) compiling an inventory of relevant energy and material inputs and environmental releases, 2) evaluating the potential impacts associated with these inputs and releases, and 3) interpreting and evaluating the results to help make more informed, objective decisions.

There are two main types of LCA and each has four phases based on ISO protocols. The process is not simple but is well accepted in many industry sectors. We suggest you leave the details to expert practioners. The importance to the wood products industry is more fundamental: every LCA done for wood shows the environmental benefits of wood regardless of the application. The American Forest & Paper Association has begged the scientific community for years to apply LCA to wood products and the green building industry. This cause for the wood products industry is currently being driven by the American Wood Council. When LCAs for wood become accepted by green building programs like LEED, wood may finally get the justly deserved recognition as a renewable, sustainable material.

You may not know it, but you see product declarations every day. Just look at the packaging of any food product and there it is: calories, percent of calories from fat, sodium and cholesterol content, and so on. An environmental product declaration provides science-based, verifiable information in a standard format largely based on life cycle assessment data. EPDs are neutral and make no value-based judgments. There are two types of EPDs: generic, that are prepared by trade associations, and product-specific EPDs prepared by manufacturers. All are standardized through ISO 14025. When you read the product declaration on the side of a container of yogurt, you have confidence that the nutritional information is true and accurate. The American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) has played a leadership role in adapting EPDs to wood. The result will be fact-based, science-based, and standardized environmental information on wood that anyone can understand.

The discussion on LCA and EPD heated up significantly when the LEED program released version 2 of its 2012 program for member and public comment. Version 2 leans heavily on LCA tools and related EPDs. Could it be that LEED may actually give more recognition to wood as a building material? Stay tuned.

Roger Rutan is Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Timber Products Company, a leading manufacturer of hardwood plywood and decorative panels.

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