How Sustainable Is Elm Wood? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is Elm Wood? Here Are the Facts

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Quynh Nguyen

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Elm trees grow fast and produce many seeds over a long time, making timber replacement relatively quick and easy. However, the elm trees, which support many birds and mammals, are susceptible to the Dutch elm disease. So we had to ask: How sustainable is it to buy products made out of elm wood? 

Elm wood is sustainable thanks to the trees’ carbon sequestration. These species’ fast growth and prolific production of seeds mean that it is possible to harvest the woods without harming the forests. Also, locally-grown elm timber has lower transporting carbon emissions than imported woods.

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

Here’s How Sustainable Elm Wood Is

Elm wood is a sustainable material because of the elm trees’ carbon sequestration potential and the carbon offset value at the end of any products made with elm 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 understand the sustainability of elm wood, we assess the life-cycle of elm furniture and household items. 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 furniture and flooring made with elm wood. However, you will also find some cradle-to-gate data where relevant. 

The life-cycle stages of elm woodEach stage’s sustainability
Growing of elm woodGrowing elm trees is sustainable because these prolific seed producers grow relatively fast and take up carbon from the atmosphere throughout their long lives. 
Manufacturing of elm woodTurning elm wood into furniture has a relatively low carbon footprint. Kiln-drying – the most carbon-intensive step in manufacturing – results in 38.5 kg CO2-eq for 1m3 of elm lumber, 4/4 (1 inch) thick. Wood waste can be recycled fully as by-products or biomass pellets to offset the carbon emissions during harvesting and processing. 
Transporting of elm woodTransporting is a relatively carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of elm wood furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores. As elm trees are distributed widely in the US, a piece of elm wood furniture would have a lower carbon footprint than that made from imported woods.
Usage of elm woodUsing elm furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 
End-of-life of elm woodThe end-of-life stage for elm furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy. 

Overall, we can say that elm wood is sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a table or a cabinet, depends on more specific factors, especially the distance and mode of transportation. Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy elm wood more sustainably. 

How Sustainable Is the Growing Elm Wood

Growing elm trees is sustainable because these prolific seed producers grow relatively fast and take up carbon from the atmosphere throughout their long lives. 

What Type of Wood is Elm and What Does This Mean for Sustainability

Elm wood comes from fast-growing hardwood trees in the Ulmus genus. The 30 species in this genus are often divided into hard elms and soft elms. The difference between these two groups is the wood density: 41 to 47 lbs/ft3 for hard elms and 35 to 38 lbs/ft3 for soft elms. 

US hard elms include: 

US soft elms include: 

Though growth rate varies among different elm species, these trees are generally fast growers, with an annual height increase between 3 to 6 feet in ideal growing conditions

How Sustainable Does Elm Wood Grow

Elm’s sustainability lies in the potential for carbon sequestration, the speed of regeneration, and the ability to restore and reclaim burned lands. 

  • Carbon sequestration: As elm trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink during their long lifespan. For example, trees of the American Elm (Ulmus americana) species often reach 200 years old. Some live longer than 300 years

Being a carbon sink means that elm trees suck greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the climate crisis

Carbon is stored in the roots, trunk, and branches. Generally, the bigger the size, the more storage there is. Rock Elm (Ulmus thomasii) can grow as tall as 100 feet, while red elm trees are often smaller, averaging 50 to 80 feet. 

  • Regeneration & Population: The elm population regenerates fairly easily and quickly thanks to the fast growth rates and the abundance of seeds.

American elm, for example, begins to bear seed at a young age, which is around 15 years old. The number of seeds produced increases as it matures. It has been reported that some trees continue to make seeds until they reach 300 years of age. 

Because of this early seed-producing,  the elm population in the US had survived the worst of the Dutch elm diseases that killed off the majority of older trees. 

It takes 10.65 seconds for US forests to grow 1m³ of American elm. In comparison: 

  • Growing 1m³ of tulipwood takes much less time at 1.82 seconds
  • Growing 1m3 of aspen takes a little less at 6.05 seconds
  • The US forest, in general (with timber like beech or walnut), requires a longer time to grow 1m3 of more than 13 seconds for either hardwood

The percentage of elm trees in the US forests is small. They account for only about 2% of US hardwood growing stock (298 million cubic meters). However, there is a surplus of 3.41 million cubic meters of elm wood every year after harvesting. Such positive net volume means it is relatively sustainable to cut down elm trees for timber.

Where Is Elm Wood Usually Grown

Elm trees are native to northern temperate forests throughout North America and Eurasia. US-native elm species include American elms, red elm, and rock elm. 

Harvesting elm wood from natural forests can result in biodiversity loss regarding the tree species and wild animals that feed and shelter in the 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 elm trees also disrupts the forests’ wild animals, which depend on the forest for food and shelter. 

The seeds of American elm trees, for example, are eaten by many small birds. Mice, squirrels, ruffed grouse, northern bobwhite, and Hungarian partridge eat flower buds, flowers, and fruits from the tree. Hares occasionally browse the leaves and twigs. 

Deer and rabbits browse the twigs of red elm while some birds and small mammals eat the seeds. 

American elm trees also provide thermal cover and nesting sites for a range of cavity nesters. 

Because American elm trees are long-lived, prolific seed producers, their role in supporting wildlife is significant. 

Hence, cutting down elm trees, especially when done illegally or unsustainably, can disrupt the forests’ wild animals. The only way for you as a consumer to tackle unsustainable logging practices is to source sustainable woods. We will point you in the right direction with elm 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 Elm Wood

Turning elm 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 elm furniture and flooring involves cutting down trees and turning them into lumber in a sawmill. Electricity is needed to run sawing machines. 

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.

Elm lumber dries well with minimum degradation. Experiments in the Forest Products Lab showed that equalizing, seasoning, and drying green elm lumber to a moisture content of 7 percent took 41 hours. The temperature of the kiln is 230oF. When the kiln was set at temperatures lower than 180oF, the total drying time was as long as 150 hours. 

According to the life-cycle assessment tool of the American Hardwood Export Council, The carbon footprint of the drying step for 1m3 of elm lumber, 4/4 (1 inch) thick, is 38.5 CO2-eq, That is 

  • lower than the carbon footprint of drying many other American hardwoods, including white oak (98.3 kg CO2-eq), red oak (89.7CO2-eq), and hickory, black cherry, willow – all of which being 42.7 kg CO2-eq,
  • similar to the carbon footprint of drying, for example, ash and aspen (38.5 kg CO2-eq), 
  • but higher than the carbon footprint of drying, for example, tulipwood (25.6 kg CO2-eq).

However, a high proportion of energy (to power sawing machines and kilns) can 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).

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Elm Wood

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

As elm trees are distributed throughout the US, a piece of elm wood furniture or household items would have a lower carbon footprint than that made from imported woods like mahogany, teak, rosewood or meranti, 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. 

According to the life-cycle assessment tool of the American Hardwood Export Council, transporting 1m3 of elm lumber, 4/4 (1 inch) thick from the forest to the kiln results in 37.9 kg CO2-eq, and from the kiln to the customer in Western Europe 144 kg CO2-eq. Transporting carbon footprint (in this scenario) is almost five times higher than the drying step in manufacturing. 

Compared with some other American hardwoods, the growing, manufacturing, and transporting of elm wood have a carbon footprint among the group with lower carbon footprints. 

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 357 kg CO2-eq for one cubic meter of kiln-dried elm lumber, 4/4 (1 inch) thick. That is 

  • lower than the carbon footprint of , for example, white oak (559 kg CO2-eq), red oak (496 kg CO2-eq), hickory (463 kg CO2-eq),hard maple (394 kg CO2-eq), and cottonwood (373 kg CO2-eq)
  • but higher than the carbon footprint of, for example, willow (310 kg CO2-eq), cherry (301 kg CO2-eq), and tulipwood (270 kg CO2-eq).

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Elm Wood

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

Elm wood is rated as non-durable because the lumber is susceptible to insect attack. And at the same time, the living trees are also susceptible to Dutch elm disease. These tree species provide “softer” wood than other hardwood species like oak or hickory. 

The soft elm species, such as American elm and red elm, have a Janka Hardness of around 800 lbf. Rock elm – a hard elm species is harder, with a 1,320 lbf Janka hardness, but it is not commonly used as the soft elm varieties. 

In comparison, shagbark hickory’s Janka hardness indicator is 1,880 lbf. This means that shagbark hickory can withstand dent, tear and wear twice as well as the commonly used soft elm.

One distinct feature of elm wood is its interlocked grain. Because of this, the wood is fairly resistant to splitting and shock. Consequently, furniture and furniture parts that need to absorb shock last longer when made with elm. 

When elm 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 Elm Wood

The end-of-life stage for elm wood furniture and household items 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 an elm door can be burned for biomass energy displacing coal or natural gas in generating electricity

With smaller household items, 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 overall carbon emission of elm wood is negative, largely thanks to the high carbon uptake during the forestry stage. 

How Can You Buy Elm 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 elm 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 sustainable furniture made from elm wood as long as the material comes from sustainably managed forests. And, to make it even more sustainable, use any elm 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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