How Sustainable Is Birch Wood? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is Birch Wood? Here Are the Facts

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Quynh Nguyen

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Birch wood comes from various birch tree species which spread far and wide across the northern hemisphere. The timber is strong and suitable for making long-lasting furniture. Also, species like the American yellow and paper birch grow sustainably in abundance in US forests. However, as the birch trees support many animals and birds, cutting down the trees hurts wildlife. So we had to ask: How sustainable is it to buy products made out of birch wood? 

Birch wood is sustainable thanks to the carbon sequestration of birch trees. Birch wood can be sourced locally, thus having a lower transporting carbon emission than tropical hardwoods. However, harvesting birch wood from ancient old-growth forests can result in biodiversity loss.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of birch wood used for furniture, flooring, and household items. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potentials, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable birch wood. 

Here’s How Sustainable Birch Wood Is

Birch wood is a sustainable material because of the birch trees’ carbon sequestration potential and the carbon offset value at the end of any products made with birch wood. 

Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

To better understand the sustainability of birch wood, we assess the life-cycle of birch furniture. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of each stage in a product’s life-cycle, from the making to the recycling. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. 

In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life cycle of birch wood. Where it is relevant, we also use data from cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of birch wood Each stage’s sustainability
Growing of birch wood Birch species are long-lived trees that often grow at different rates within their lifespan. Growing birch trees for timber is sustainable thanks to the carbon sequestration potential and the sufficient populations of these tree species. However, harvesting birch wood from natural forests, especially the ancient old-growth forests, can result in biodiversity loss.
Manufacturing of birch wood Turning birch wood into furniture has a relatively low carbon footprint. Kiln-drying – the most carbon-intensive step in manufacturing – results in 51.3 kg CO2-eq for 1m3 of birch lumber, (a 4/4 (1 inch) thick log). Also, wood waste can be recycled fully as by-products or biomass pellets to offset the carbon emissions during harvesting and processing.
Transporting of birch wood Transporting is a relatively carbon-intensive stage in the life cycle of birch wood furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores. As birch trees are distributed widely in the US, a piece of birch wood furniture would have a lower carbon footprint than that made from imported woods.
Usage of birch wood Using birch wood furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life – at least when used in dry indoor locations.
End-of-life of birch wood The end-of-life stage for birch wood furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy. 

Overall, we can say that birch wood is sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a table or a chair, depends on many factors, especially the distance and mode of transportation. Let’s dive deeper into each stage and find out how it can be more sustainable. 

How Sustainable Is the Growing of Birch wood

Growing birch trees for timber is sustainable thanks to the carbon sequestration potential and the sufficient populations of these tree species. 

What Type of Wood Is Birch Wood and What Does This Mean for Sustainability

Birch wood comes from the slow-growing hardwood tree species of the Betula genus. The genus has about 40 species adapting to different climatic conditions in North America, Europe, and the Himalayan region. 

Some birch species native to the US and Canada are yellow birch, paper birch, and sweet birch. Unless specified otherwise, this article uses data from yellow birch species, one of the most commonly used in woodworking in the US. 

Birch species are long-lived trees that often grow at different rates within their lifespan. 

Sweet birch (Betula nana) trees, for example, grow 6 ft in the first 12 years. That is a very slow rate of 6 inches per year. However, these trees can add an annual height of five feet – ten times the previous growth rate – in the following 8 years. They are about 60 feet at maturity.

The growth rate and height at maturity vary amongst the 40 birch species. For example, while sweet birch is relatively small at 60 feet, a yellow birch tree can reach up to 100 feet when it is mature. 

How Sustainably Does Birch Wood Grow

Birch wood’s sustainability lies in the potential for carbon sequestration and its availability thanks to birch trees’ large and spread-out populations.

  • Carbon Sequestration: As birch trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink during their long lifespan. A yellow birch tree commonly lives longer than 300 years. It means 300 years of the tree taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. And they can store large amounts of carbon as well. Yellow birch trees can reach 100 feet in height and 3 feet in trunk diameter.
  • Availability: The US yellow birch growing stock is 541 million cubic meters – about 3.7% of total US hardwood growing stock. Birch’s population is not as large as that of some other American hardwoods like white oak, maple, or tulipwood, but more than beech or cottonwood, for example.

It takes 8.89 seconds for US forests to grow 1m³ of American yellow birch. In comparison, growing 1m³ of tulipwood takes much less time (1.82 seconds). However, timber like beech or walnut requires longer to replace: it takes more than 13 seconds for the US forests to grow 1m³ of either hardwood.

The US forests add about 2.28 million cubic meters of yellow birch every year after harvesting. The surplus means it is relatively sustainable to cut down birch trees for timber.

Where Is Birch Wood Usually Grown

Birch trees grow all over the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere. There are about 40 different species, spreading across North America, Europe, and the Himalayas. In the US, yellow birch trees are common in the Great Lakes regions and the Appalachian Mountains. 

Scattered individual canopy birch trees are often found in mixed forests alongside sugar maple, beech, or hemlock. 

Harvesting birch wood from natural forests, especially the ancient old-growth forests, can result in biodiversity loss regarding the tree species and wild animals that feed and shelter in those woods. 

One example is when loggers only cut down the biggest and tallest trees. That pattern would cause a reduction in the genetic diversity and quality of the trees within the stand, leading to gradual degradation of tree quality

Cutting down birch trees also disrupts the forests’ wild animals, which depend on the forest for food and shelter. Yellow birch trees are a good browse plant for deer and moose, while other species feed on the buds and seeds. 

Illegal logging in the US is unfortunately not non-existent. The only way for consumers to tackle problems caused by illegal logging is to source sustainable woods. We will point you in the right direction with birch wood at the end of this article. 

In total, logging of forestry products from plantations accounts for 26% of forest loss, which is a combination of deforestation and forest degradation. However, the loss in bio-diverse forests in tropical climates is more significant (and sometimes less properly recorded) than in temperate, well-managed logging forests. 

Illustration of long-term forest loss
Our World in Data: Decadal losses in global forest over the last three centuries

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Birch Wood

Turning birch wood into furniture has a relatively low carbon footprint because wood waste can be recycled fully as by-products or biomass pellets to offset the carbon emissions during harvesting and processing. 

The first step of manufacturing birch wood furniture involves cutting down trees and turning them into lumber in a sawmill. The carbon emissions here come from electricity usage. 

The next step is to dry lumber before turning it into furniture. If a piece of lumber can be air-dried to the desired moisture content, no added energy is needed for this step. However, if a kiln is used, it requires extra energy, which could mean higher carbon emissions.

The carbon footprint of the drying step for a 4/4 inch log is 51.3 kg CO2-eq, according to the life cycle assessment tool of the American Hardwood Export Council

  • That is lower than the carbon footprint of drying, for example, white oak (98.3 kg CO2-eq) and red oak (89.7CO2-eq),
  • but higher than black cherry (42.7CO2-eq), ash (38.5 kg CO2-eq), or tulipwood (25.6 kg CO2-eq).

A high proportion of energy can, however, come from burning wood waste. At least 90% of all thermal energy used for kiln drying in the US hardwood sector is derived from biomass (instead of fossil fuels).

The data also shows that together the sawing and kiln drying steps release much fewer greenhouse gasses than the transporting (forest-to-kiln and kiln-to-customer) stage. 

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Birch Wood

Transporting is a relatively carbon-intensive stage in the life cycle of birch wood furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores. 

As birch trees are distributed widely in the US, a piece of birch wood furniture would have a lower carbon footprint than that made from imported woods like mahogany, teak, or rosewood, providing they are both sold in the US. 

Calculations made by the Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute showed that smaller wood hauling trucks emitted more CO2 per transported cubic meters of timber: 1.25 times more than larger wood hauling trucks, 1.3 times more than sea vessels, and six times more than freight trains. Therefore, the sustainable transportation option would be rail or large trucks running on biofuel. You can check with your wood suppliers how their products are transported and opt for the more sustainable option. 

Compared with some other American hardwoods, the growing, manufacturing, and transporting of birch wood have a carbon footprint amongst the average

For example, PE International AG assessed the environmental impacts of 19 American hardwoods through stages from cradle to gate plus transport. They found a carbon footprint of 385 kg CO2-eq for one cubic meter of kiln-dried birch wood logs

  • That is lower than the carbon footprint of, for example, hard maple (394 kg CO2-eq), ash (407 kg CO2-eq), and white oak (559 kg CO2-eq),
  • but higher than the carbon footprint of, for example, willow (310kg CO2-eq), black cherry (301kg CO2-eq), and tulipwood (270 kg CO2-eq).

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Birch Wood

Using birch wood furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life.

Birch wood is not rated as being durable because it is susceptible to insect attacks and weather elements. It will readily rot and decay if exposed to elements outside homes. 

As birch wood is extremely strong with good shock resistance, its products can last for years if used in dry rooms, such as a living room or a playing area. 

When birch wood is decayed, either naturally in the forest or because of damage caused by usage at home, the carbon stored in the wood is released back to the atmosphere. Therefore, long-lasting furniture can be considered a good way of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. If the wood is then reclaimed for making another piece of furniture, its positive carbon storage environmental impact is even higher. 

How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Birch Wood

The end-of-life stage for birch wood furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy. 

There are a few scenarios for wood products – furniture and household items- at the end of their life: 

  1. They can end up in landfills and don’t decompose. In this case, it keeps its role as carbon storage.
  2. Wood products can also be upcycled and reused, extending their role as carbon storage and reducing the fossil CO2 emitted as much as four times when comparing, for example, a recovered hardwood flooring with a new one. New wood products often travel much further to their markets, compared with recovered wood products. The latter is typically made in urban centers and sold locally, which lowers the transportation environmental burdens.
  3. In another end-of-life scenario, products like a birch wood cabinet can be burned for biomass energy displacing coal or natural gas in generating electricity

With smaller household items, like a bowl or a chopping board, the offset won’t be as high as there is much less waste for burning. However, if such products are made from manufacturing wood waste as by-products, their carbon footprint is minimal. 

According to the life-cycle assessment done by the American Hardwood Export Council, the carbon emission of birch wood is negative, largely thanks to the enormous carbon uptake during the forestry stage. 

How Can You Buy Birch Wood More Sustainably

The key to sustainably buying any wood is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications. Reliable certifications for sustainable woods are: 

An FSC certification ensures that the birch wood comes from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits.

PEFC’s approaches to sustainable forest management are in line with protecting the forests globally and locally and making the certificate work for everyone. Getting a PEFC certification is strict enough to ensure the sustainable management of a forest is socially just, ecologically sound, and economically viable but attainable not only by big but small forest owners.

Why Is It Important to Buy More Sustainable Wood

Buying sustainable wood also means helping to prevent illegal or unsustainable logging, which harms the forests’ biosystems and accelerates climate change. 

Logging of forestry products from plantations accounts for 26% of forest loss. Cutting down trees for wood has a lesser impact on carbon storage than digging up the whole forest floor and turning it into farms or mines. However, if logging is not sustainably managed, it can badly damage wildlife.

When logging happens in tropical forests – the bio hotspots of our planet – the biodiversity loss can be much more damaging. Subtropical and tropical forests are packed with unique wildlife – endemic mammals, birds, and amphibians. The displacement of such wildlife during poorly managed logging would be a major contributor to global biodiversity loss. 

Sustainable management of forests also means that trees are cut down for timber only when they are mature. These trees will then be able to regrow and eventually replace the loss of canopy, absorb carbon from the atmosphere and reduce the effect of climate change. 

Illustration of drivers of tropical forest degradation
Our World in Data: Drivers of tropical forest degradation

Final Thoughts

You can buy furniture made from birch wood as long as the material comes from sustainably managed forests. And, to make it even more sustainable, use any birch wood furniture for as long as you can, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled fully.

Stay impactful,



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Quynh Nguyen

Quynh loves to research and write about how we can live more sustainably. Before joining Impactful Ninja, she managed communications at the social enterprise Fargreen. And when she's not writing, she likes to run in the woods, dig in the garden, or knit the next jumper.

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