I’m writing this post from the back porch of my parent’s house (even on vacation there is no rest for a Concerned Scientist). Away from the glass, steel, concrete, and brick of Washington, DC, here I realize I am immersed in a world of wood.
My mother is sitting just inside at the antique oak table in the very kitchen that I saw rise from a concrete foundation and wooden frame, grading her students’ first papers of the school year. My step-dad is out “on the property” among the scores of redwoods, birches, fruit trees, willows, and pines (the last remnants of the Christmas tree farm that once stood here) which have grown nearly to a forest over the last 15 years.
But what are the consequences of all this wood? Should my parents have used something else to build their house? Should my mom have her students turn in homework electronically and skip the paper all together? Should I be finishing the Hunger Games on an e-reader or in paperback? (The only thing I don’t feel conflicted about is the oak table, as it’s been in our family for a few generations).
Thankfully a new report from UCS, Wood for Good: Solutions for Deforestation-Free Wood Products, the last in a three part series, helps answer some of these questions.
A world of wood
The market for wood products, like so much of the economy these days, is global. Timber harvested from Vietnam, Indonesia, Russia, or Canada, is shipped to a processing plant in China or some other manufacturing hub and crafted into the tables, chairs, desks, or paper products we use every day.
Where this wood comes from has a major effect on biodiversity and carbon emissions. Complete clearing of tropical forests is a major problem in Southeast Asia, while destructive selective logging is rampant throughout the tropics. Most of the growth in the timber industry over the next decades is expected to be in the tropics so these pressures are likely to increase.
What makes wood good?
There is hope, however. Wood can be a sustainable and carbon-neutral material if producers take certain steps to ensure there products are deforestation-free. When taking timber from natural forests, loggers should use low-impact logging techniques to ensure they are doing as little damage as possible. Also, loggers should not remove any trees from untouched primary forests.
Plantations within the tropics also offer a sustainable way to produce timber. Tropical plantations are often very fast growing and allow for wood production without disturbing intact forests. However, natural forests should never be cleared to make way for plantations. This type of clearing, called conversion, leads to a loss of biodiversity and ecosystem carbon. To be sustainable, plantations should be established on degraded, abandoned, or other non-forest lands.
What can you do?
Beyond steps that producers can take, there are things that consumers can do to make sustainable choices. First, they can recycle paper and wood products and use recycled and reclaimed products (who knew that that advice everyone got in third grade would still be true). Wood and paper can be recycled and reused very efficiently and using more recycled materials means that less new production is needed.
Second, consumers can look for wood products that are sustainably certified. The leading timber certification is called FSC, which stands for Forest Stewardship Council. FSC establishes certain standards and criteria to ensure that the products containing their label are produced in a sustainable way with minimal impact on the environment. While the FSC standards aren’t perfect, they are a step in the right direction.
Finally, consumers should be engaged with the products they buy. If they don’t see recycled or certified products in stores, they should ask the store to start carrying such options or find a store that already does.