The forest-based and related industries comprise one of the most important industry sectors in the European Union, representing some 10% of the EU's manufacturing industries. Their activities are based on renewable raw material resources and efficient recycling. The forest-based industries can be broken down into the following sectors: forestry, woodworking, pulp and paper manufacturing, paper and board converting and printing and furniture. The woodworking sector includes many sub-sectors; one of the most important is that of wood panels accounting for 9% of total industry production. Wood panels are used as intermediate products in a wide variety of applications in the furniture and building industries. There are different kinds of panels: particleboard, fibreboard, veneer, plywood and blockboard. The main goal of this study was to assess the environmental impacts during the life cycle of wet-process fibreboard (hardboard) manufacturing to identify the processes with the largest environmental impacts. The study covers the life cycle of hardboard production from a cradle-to-gate perspective. A hardboard plant was analysed in detail, dividing the process chain into three subsystems: wood preparation, board forming and board finishing. Ancillary activities such as chemicals, wood chips, thermal energy and electricity production and transport were included within the system boundaries. Inventory data came from interviews and surveys (on-site measurements). When necessary, the data were complemented with bibliographic resources. The life cycle assessment procedure followed the ISO14040 series. The life cycle inventory (LCI) and impact assessment database for this study were constructed using SimaPro Version 7.0 software. Abiotic depletion (AD), global warming (GW), ozone layer depletion (OLD), human toxicity (HT), ecotoxicity, photochemical oxidant formation (PO), acidification (AC) and eutrophication (EP) were the impact categories analysed in this study. The wood preparation subsystem contributed more than 50% to all impact categories, followed by board forming and board finishing, which is mainly due to chemicals consumption in the wood preparation subsystem. In addition, thermal energy requirements (for all subsystems) were fulfilled by on-site wood waste burning and, accordingly, biomass energy converters were considered. Several processes were identified as hot spots in this study: phenol-formaldehyde resin production (with large contribution to HT, fresh water aquatic ecotoxicity and PO), electricity production (main contributor to marine aquatic ecotoxicity), wood chips production (AD and OLD) and finally, biomass burning for heat production (identified as the largest contributor to AC and EP due to NO X emissions). In addition, uncontrolled formaldehyde emissions from manufacturing processes at the plant such as fibre drying should be controlled due to relevant contributions to terrestrial ecotoxicity and PO. A sensitivity analysis of electricity profile generation (strong geographic dependence) was carried out and several European profiles were analysed. Novel binding agents for the wood panel industry as a substitute for the currently used formaldehyde-based binders have been extensively investigated. Reductions of toxic emissions during drying, mat forming and binder production are desirable. The improved method would considerably reduce the contributions to all impact categories. The results obtained in this work allow forecasting the importance of the wood preparation subsystem for the environmental burdens associated with hardboard manufacture. Special attention was paid to the inventory analysis stage for each subsystem. It is possible to improve the environmental performance of the hardboard manufacturing process if some alternatives are implemented regarding the use of chemicals, electricity profile and emission sources in the production processes located inside the plant. This study provides useful information for forest-based industries related to panel manufacture with the aim of increasing their sustainability. Our research continues to assess the use phase and final disposal of panels to complete the life cycle assessment. Future work will focus on analysing the environmental aspects associated with plywood, another type of commonly used wood panel. © 2009 Springer-Verlag.
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