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A city park with trees

Urban Forest Wood-An Innovative Look at Recycling

What happens when urban trees reach their end of life?

Urban trees are one of those remarkable stories that largely flies under the radar. We appreciate how a large canopy can shield us from the intense summer sun or help keep us dry during an unexpected downpour, but most of the time, we take them for granted. We shouldn’t.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, urban trees offer a wealth of benefits. Did you know that a mature tree can absorb up to 150 kg of CO2 per year? Aside from sequestering carbon and creating biodiversity, trees help filter pollutants and fine particulates. They also reduce energy requirements for air conditioning and heating when strategically placed.

Research has found that trees aid city dwellers’ physical and mental health and their presence even boosts real estate value. But for urban trees, the story hasn’t always had a happy ending. At the end of life, too often, they have ended up in the waste stream, chipped or burnt, a low repayment for many decades of civic service. The rise of the urban wood movement, however, offers a more promising path.

The sustainability case for upcycling harvested urban wood is compelling. Approximately 3.8 billion board feet of urban wood harvested annually from U.S. cities could be processed into lumber – not counting fire salvage or orchard rescue trees. Utilizing just 10% of that urban wood harvest currently chipped or left to rot would have an equivalent impact on removing 732,000 cars from the street.

The urban wood movement has been growing in recent decades as people have increasingly recognized the value of harvested city trees that had long been underutilized. One of those many stories is told by Jennifer Alger, Director of the Urban Wood Network Western Region, a not-for-profit organization.

She grew up, she said, riding in her dad’s truck as he scoured neighborhoods looking for trees that needed to be taken down. He had been a contract logger by summer and a burl buyer for a firearms manufacturer in winter.

But when the logging business bottomed in the early 1980s, “I spent my childhood in a vehicle with Dad buying these random dead or dying trees from people’s houses,” she recalled. And so he was doing urban lumber before the term ‘urban lumber’ was even coined. At that time, they were cutting for firewood and cellophane wrapping bundles of it for retailers.

Her father recognized the value of timber from the wood world, and it pained him to be cutting perfectly good lengths of material into firewood.  “Why are we cutting these logs into firewood?”, he asked Jennifer, “These logs are gorgeous”.

They began setting aside the best logs and stockpiled them. Finally, they bought their first portable band sawmill in the 1990s, allowing them to mill lumber. Similar stories are told around the country by other companies and participants who recognize the value of harvesting urban wood.

Like others in the urban wood recovery business, Jennifer found a knowledge void regarding its potential value. With that thought in mind, she began networking informally in the early 2000s with the help of CalFire and the United States Forest Service to reach out to arborists and other stakeholders about more sustainable outcomes for urban trees. “We were importing all these hardwoods from either the East Coast or from overseas and here in California, we were spending hours on chipping them, burning, or landfilling – all of these scenarios,” she recalled.

One of the myths that needed to be overcome was that urban trees would be too expensive to mill because of embedded steel objects.” Everybody told me that it costs too much to mill these urban trees because they have nails in them, and so it’s just going to be too costly.” She responded that they were already milling urban trees at her company, and with the value of a blade only $17 or $20, “not that big of a deal.”

In 2016, Urban, Salvaged, & Reclaimed Woods Inc., a West Coast non-profit network was incorporated. In networking with other groups around the country, however, group members discovered that different regions had slightly different perspectives about urban wood. For example, some regional networks included reclaimed lumber from deconstruction, while others included only urban trees.

“The urban wood movement is big and it’s catching on worldwide,” Jennifer said. “But we recognized that we were fragmented.” That fragmentation was standing in the way of building a stronger industry. Collectively, the urban wood communities recognized the need to rebrand, as well as to create standards and certification programs that would help build consumer trust and shield customers from poor quality suppliers.

After much discussion with each of the networks around the country, it was determined that we would unite under the Urban Wood Network with the previous West Coast group becoming the Urban Wood Network Western Region. As a result of that collaboration, urban wood can be described as:

“Any wood that was not harvested for its timber value and was diverted from or removed from the waste-stream and developed or redeveloped into a product. Urban wood can come from three sources: Deconstruction, fresh-cut urban trees, & salvaged wood.”

The group is working towards several initiatives to increase the professionalism of the industry, including the establishment of lumber grades specific to urban timber and chain of custody certification program.

Jennifer is currently working with an expert team of developers and customer experience specialists on the build-out of AncesTREE™ an Inventory Management System and enterprise application that will allow users to easily adhere to the industry standards, track the chain-of-custody, manage their inventory, and generally better manage and grow their urban lumber businesses.

An integrated approach is increasingly being sought, involving cities, municipalities, and large corporate or educational campuses. Attention to pruning and tree care with eventual salvage in mind can boost the marketable value of timber.

The establishment of urban forest management plans and policies can make an important difference for the industry going forward. The establishment of policies will make the urban wood industry less vulnerable to the loss of key urban wood supporters in key decision-making roles.

There are several forces at play that are helping drive the urban wood movement. On one hand, there are increasing restrictions regarding the landfilling of wood waste. On the other hand, people recognize the substantial benefits of using urban wood. With its beautifully unique appearance, it creates one-of-a-kind home products, while supporting local businesses. Using local urban wood also is a celebration of local history, while playing a part in diverting waste and sequestering carbon.

These days, many individuals and organizations are helping to script a more sustainable end of life scenario for urban trees through solid wood recovery. “By networking together, we can build awareness that brings these trees back into the social and economic lives of the communities they came from in the form of lumber, slabs, flooring, siding, furniture, art, architecture and other value-added wood products,” the Urban Wood Network states at its website.

For her part, Jennifer believes that the groundwork the Urban Wood Network is creating today will set the stage for the growth of the urban wood movement and a more sustainable outcome for city trees. Through its focus on education, standards, and promotional assistance, she sees a bright future. “We expect in the next two to five years an absolute explosion of the urban network and its membership,” she concluded.

Talking to the Source: Conversation with a Lumber Broker

Lumber yard with forklift carrying a random length load

For this blog, Nature’s Packaging reached out to a lumber wholesaler based out of Canada within the Quebec province. The company supplies products to the wooden pallet industry as well as the fence industry. 

NP: What does a lumber broker do?

A good lumber broker offers value added to the product: when a mill is down, he should be able to ship from another mill. He can also offer different alternatives such as softwood, aspen, hardwood as well as different grades and dimensions. Most mills are specialized and limited to a certain number of dimensions and species.

By talking to customers in many states and areas, and talking to mills in different areas, the broker has a broad view of what is happening in the market. From the log situation to demand, the broker has a global understanding to share.

Good brokers have a diversified team communicating with hundreds of customers and many suppliers. Different personalities, different contacts, different experiences bring a wider range of perspectives.

Can you tell us what you do on a daily basis?

Our team talks to mills every day. We visit them on a regular basis. We are involved when it is time to look at new equipment so the production meets the customer’s requirements.

We also listen to our customers to match their needs with the mill’s capacity. Our participation in different associations keeps us well informed of the legal changes, the technological improvements, and allows us to network with equipment suppliers and help the mills and customers.

Industrial or lower grade lumber isn’t worth as much as premium grades. Why is it important to the overall lumber market, and particularly for wood pallet and packaging manufacturers?

The mills need to make money. Some cut higher grade logs and produce grade lumber. Some scrag mills produce only pallet grade lumber. SPF and SYP mills produce commodities that represent 80% of their products but the pallet lumber prices can make the difference between a good year and not making it.

It is important to be aware of what is going on in the higher-grade markets because they are directly affecting industrial lumber prices. When premium, #1 & #2 and stud prices are as high as they are today, it forces the builder to use #3 grade that is usually going to the Industrial markets, making availability and prices shift very quickly.

What about logistics and transportation management? Why is this area important to lumber supply?

Customers want “just in time”, they do not want inventories and mills needs cashflow. So scheduling the production, then the shipments to meet customer’s needs is an everyday challenge. Freight costs and availability change with demand and fuel costs.

Respecting the truckers and nurturing good relationships with them is as important as paying fast. Good people, good software, and great relationships are key ingredients to a high-quality logistics program.

The price of lumber has been particularly volatile, lately. What types of events cause such price movement, and what can you, as a lumber supplier, do to help buyers through such times?

COVID has changed our lives. Instead of traveling, we work from home, we cook more, we are building a new fence, a new deck, painting the house, building a shed…so that our “cocoon” is better and we keep busy!

Pallets move the world so your paint comes on a pallet, the screws, and nails for the deck and fence as well as many renovation products. Demand for lumber went up just as many mills were missing workers because of COVID.

Our job has been to work with our customers at trying other species and dimension, changing the ratios of 3 ½’’ vs 5 ½’’ to have a better supply. I cannot share all of our secrets but we have been supplying lumber solutions to many customers.

What are some of the biggest mistakes that customers make when it comes to lumber buying?

Some do not know what their actual cutting costs are and what their waste factor when cutting their own wood. When comparing to pre-cut lumber we can see that price is important, but the waste factor is part of the costs too.

Buying the lowest bidder can be dangerous. It is better to spread a bit and have more diversified sources. Working with a supplier when a problem happens is better than rejecting the load and leaving the other to deal with the problem.

If you could give lumber buyers one or two key takeaways from this interview, what would it be?

Suppliers are as important as customers. I can have all the customers but if I do not have the lumber, I am useless. If I have all the lumber and all the customers, I still need the truckers and they need to be treated with respect too.

Finally, a good broker must be competitive but is not always the cheapest. The team of professionals provides market information, is there to find lumber solutions for you, to bring various mills, species, dimensions, and grades so you can provide the shipping platform solutions your customers need.

2 Types of Recycled Pallets for Export

2 Types of Recycled Pallets for Export

The sustainable standards of ISPM 15 regulations apply to recycled wood pallets and prevent them from spreading wood boring insects across international borders. These standards help ensure recycled wood pallet and crate companies do their part to protect the environment. ISPM 15 separated recycled pallets into two categories: repaired and remanufactured.

It’s Like Buying a Used Car

When a pallet company buys broken, heat treated, recycled pallets from their customer, most of the pallets require some repair. The pallet company brings the recycled pallets to their facility to sort through them. They fix the repairable pallets and salvage the others for parts.

Photograph by Wikimedia, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license

Photograph by Wikimedia, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Buying used pallets is like buying a used car. You could buy a reliable used car that might have had the transmission, radiator, or other parts replaced and it will still be safe and effective to drive. It’s the same car it always has been; it’s simply had a part or two replaced. In the same way, replacing the bad parts of a pallet extends the life of the pallet. ISPM 15 has two categories for recycled pallets. The first category is repaired pallets, referred to in section 4.3.2 of ISPM 15.

Repaired pallets have had up to one-third of the components replaced. This is like the new car that had its radiator replaced. Everything is still new except for that one part. However, once a pallet reaches the end of its life, it’s dismantled and the usable boards are stacked and separated for re-use on other pallets. The unusable boards are recycled into products like wood chips or sawdust for different industries.

It’s possible to make a pallet entirely from recycled boards. If a pallet has had more than one-third of its boards replaced, then ISPM 15 considers it remanufactured, referred to in section 4.3.3 of ISPM 15. This is like the car that has had its engine, transmission, and radiator replaced with parts (new or used) all sourced from different places. When a remanufactured pallet has been repaired with lumber sourced from different locations, separate rules apply. Processes need to be followed to ensure that pallet is ISPM 15 compliant and won’t spread wood-boring pests from one country to another.

Stamping for Export

The governing agency for each ISPM 15 participating country distributes a unique number to be assigned to a stamp. Each company that participates in the ISPM 15 program must clearly stamp each heat treated wood product that leaves their facility with their number. That way, the source of each wood product can be traced in case there’s a problem. Depending on the pallet’s origin, a used pallet can sometimes have more than one stamp on it to certify heat treatment. In the United States, it’s required that all previous stamps be obliterated before a pallet is heat treated. Only then can a new stamp be applied.

The language of ISPM 15 is used as a minimum requirement for all countries that participate. The agency that oversees ISPM 15 in each country has the authority to include additional standards. Put differently, the rules that apply to businesses in Canada are different than the rules that apply to businesses in the United States. The agency that oversees the Canadian ISPM 15 program is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. In the United States, it’s the American Lumber Standards Committee. Refer to links below for more information.

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