On a regular basis the "Stichting Robinia" is asked if wood is really beneficial for the environment. People refer to television spots of cut down woodland giants and to stories about disappearing forests. To show that wood can be a good choice, from an environmental point of view, Stichting Robinia wants to list the different environmental aspects of wood. Compared to other raw materials wood is less charging for the environment.
Wood is an inexhaustible raw material. After a forest is felled, new trees can be planted, that can grow out to a mature tree. These can, at their turn, be felled and thereafter an other forest can be planted again, and so on.. Therefore the available stock of wood can stay at a sustainable level, contrary to steel or oil. The stock of these raw materials is steadily decreasing.
Trees are a part of the natural vegetation of the earth and need only sunlight, water, nutrition and time to grow.
The felling of trees and the extraction of wood from the forest form but little stress on the ecosystem. The stress is very limited, because the tree-harvesting, on the average, happens only once in every 50 years. Furthermore the death of trees and forests also occurs under natural circumstances. In addition to that, soil fertility is hardly reduced, because the wood that is extracted from the forest consists mostly of elements that are not extracted from the soil but from the air and the water.
Processing a raw tree-trunk to a usable wooden product costs less energy than the processing of other raw materials. A major cause for this is that no purification or melting is needed. Wood is a material that can be used instantly and only needs a few preparatory treatments. It is manufactured in the forest. It only has to be sawed into the correct sizes and, if needed, to be assembled. With advanced techniques wood can be more efficiently processed. Therefore the output of wood-waste is small. This is of mayor interest for the eventual environmental consequences.
Because wood does not have to undergo any chemical treatment, wood still stays a clean product when discarded as waste. Characteristics that make wood an environmentally safe product:
All these aspects make the use of wood far better for the environment than other raw materials.
An important benefit of wood is that it is an ecologically sound raw material. An important condition is, however, that the forest where the wood is harvested, is exploited in a sustainable way.
In sustainable forest management the continued existence of all functions of the forest are taken in account.
The most important functions a forest fulfills are:
To guarantee this procedure a number of organizations have developed a set of distinguishing characteristics to define sustainable forest management.
Independent auditors make an assessment of the way the forest is managed. If it fulfills the conditions, the wood from these forests receives a quality mark. In this way the consumer can see that little damage is done to the durable forest whilst harvesting.
However, it turns out that settling directives for sustainable forest management is not very easy.
All those concerned have their own views and opinions about the things that are and are not allowed in a sustainable managed forest. Because of these differences of opinion a number of quality marks (hallmarks) have arisen.
These quality marks can differ in a great way concerning the criteria that must be met in forest management. Examples for these quality marks are: FSC and PEFC. These hallmarks all guarantee, on publicly accessible criteria, that the wood is originating from sustainable managed forests.
Wood is an ecologically sound material of it's own accord. If the processing and the use take place in a sustainable way that is safe for the environment, wood is one of the most ecologically sound materials.
The proper kind of wood for each use
Each tree species provides a different kind of wood with its own set of qualities. Which kind of wood is the most ecologically sound, depends particularly on the use one has in mind.
Which demands must be met in the end product? And which qualities should the wood possess? A roof construction must be robust, a planking should be weatherproof and hard, and wood that is used outside should be resistant against fungi.
If we have listed the different properties of wood, we can then determine which types of wood have these qualities, and are most suited for the use we have in mind. From an environmental point of view it is best to use the type of wood that is by nature most suited for the application.
Some ecologically sound choices of types of wood for different applications can be found here
Besides a good match of wood qualities to product demands, there is, form an environmental point of view, a great deal of profit to be gained by improving the wood processing.
In sustainable wood production the wood is used in an optimal way. Thereby as little raw material as possible is used and the amount of waste is minimized.
Next to that, the production process must use as little energy as possible. Air drying is better than the use of drying stoves. Also the use of wood that can be cut in nearby forests is preferred over wood that has to be transported over a long distance.
It is very important that the processing of wood takes place in a clean way. It often happens that less durable types of wood (e.g. pine wood or poplar) are utilized for outside applications that have to undergo a treatment to prolong the life of the wood. Possibly the wood is impregnated with creosote or metal salts. These substances are poisonous and prevent fungi to harm the wood. This process costs a lot of energy and the poisonous substances can for an important part permeate in the soil, when the wood starts to whither of or when it is dumped as waste. An other way of making wood more durable is by repeatedly heating the wood under high pressure. This method costs a lot of energy.
An environmentally safe product
Finally wood that is cultivated in a sustainable way is processed in a sustainable way into an end product. But is this end product a sustainable product?
A product is a sustainable product if it has a long life span and can be used long. The longer a product lasts, the longer it takes before a new product has to be made.
A product is also more sustainable when few detrimental chemicals have been added (e.g. creosote, paint). After the product is finally discarded, a clean product can at least be recycled or if need be burnt in the stove.
Wood is an environmentally safe product, provided that.....
Wood is an ecologically sound raw material, but only if also the processing and the use take place in a sustainable way. Only then the ecological benefits of wood stand out well.