Comparison of the environmental impacts from utility poles of different materials – a life cycle assessment

January 19, 2024

This report describes a method for environmental assessments of telegraph poles made of different materials from a life cycle perspective. Poles of creosote-impregnated wood, steel, composite and concrete have been compared with the help of life cycle analysis methodology. There are several type of life cycle assessment (LCA) and since this was a comparison analysis we chose to use a robust methodology which we call product LCA: This methodology is characterised by allocating all emissions from a process to the products of the process. If one sums the environmental impact of all such products then this would ideally be equivalent to the emissions globally. In other words, a product LCA describes the environmental impacts allocated to products based on the way it is in the physical reality. Socio-economic allocation principal, margin approach or so-called system expansion etc. is not applied in a product LCA approach. Environmental impacts are described using the common environmental impact categories and USES LCA 1.0 which is the method most widely spread and is better at assessing metals then newer methods. The result of the LCA shows that the most significant environmental aspects of all pole types is emissions of metals from steel poles during the life cycle, which impacts ecotoxicity and human toxicity. The steel pole was also the pole type which had the largest contribution to other environmental impact categories. A sensitivity analysis was undertaken with respect to the attributed service life of the poles, but this uncertainty factor is judged not to impact the ”ranking” of the different alternatives studied. The result of the LCA calculations is only applicable to the chosen products and the assumptions upon which the assessment was made. The conclusions which can be drawn regarding emissions of metals should be treated with some caution with consideration for the model uncertainty in handling human and ecotoxicity in an LCA. Supplementary risk assessments therefore provide valuable additional information. Creosote-impregnated wood has been judged by The Swedish Chemicals Agency in such a risk assessment, according to the methods applied in the Biocide directive, and according to this assessment creosote-impregnated products are approved for professional use in certain applications such as sleepers. A continued use of creosote for impregnation of poles requires national approval in Sweden and several other EU countries if these kind of products shall be installed after 2013. 
Martin Erlandsson
Martin Erlandsson. (2011), Comparison of the environmental impacts from utility poles of different materials – a life cycle assessment. Swedish Research Insititute.