A Tool for Environmental Decision Making

Life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a technique used to assess environmental impacts associated with all stages of a product’s life. Researchers in the Forest Products Laboratory’s Economics, Statistics, and Life Cycle Analysis Research group use this technique to study a wide variety of wood products, from building materials to bioenergy resources.

The goal of LCA is to compare the full range of environmental effects assignable to products and services. LCA results can be used to improve processes, support policy, and provide a sound basis for informed decisions.

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Life Cycle Assessment phases

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an LCA can assess the environmental aspects and potential impacts associated with a product, process, or service, by the following:

• Compiling an inventory of relevant energy and material inputs and environmental releases;
• Evaluating the potential impacts associated with identified inputs and releases;
• Interpreting the results to help make a more informed decision.

The EPA also describes the major stages in an LCA study as: raw material acquisition, materials manufacture, production, use/reuse/maintenance, and waste management. They go on to advise that “Companies, federal facilities, industry organizations, and academia can benefit from learning how to incorporate environmental performance based on the life cycle concept into their decision-making processes.”

The four basic phases of conducting a Life Cycle Assessment are: goal and scope definition, inventory analysis, impact assessment, and interpretation. LCA studies include all stages, but a life-cycle inventory (LCI) study does not include stage 3, the impact assessment.