How Sustainable Is Engineered (Composite) Wood? Here Are the Facts
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Most engineered (composite) wood products recycle wood waste from different stages of other timber products, which is a telltale sign of their sustainability. However, the synthetic resins often used in wood composite panels cause concern. So we had to ask: How sustainable is it to buy products made out of engineered wood?
Engineered wood is mostly sustainable thanks to the timber trees’ carbon sequestration. Recycling wood waste to produce these composite panels is environmentally favorable. But, because of synthetic adhesives, most of these products are not biodegradable and have no carbon-offset value.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of engineered (composite) wood used in furniture, flooring, and house-building projects. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable wood composite panels.
Here’s How Sustainable Engineered (Composite) Wood Panels Are
Wood composite panels could be made and consumed sustainably if manufacturers source environmentally friendly components and consumers arrange appropriate recycling when disposing of these products.
Wood is largely a sustainable material because of timber trees’ carbon sequestration potential. And using wood waste, as in most of these products, increases the material’s environmental benefits.
Though commonly-used glues contain toxic chemicals, there are natural-based bonding alternatives, which are more environmentally friendly.
“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 engineered (composite) wood, we assess the life-cycle of panels made with these types of material. 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 engineered wood composite panels. However, you will also find some cradle-to-gate data where relevant.
|The life-cycle stages of wood composite panels||Each stage’s sustainability|
|Sourcing of wood composite panels’ components||Sourcing wood material for wood composite panels can be sustainable thanks to timber trees’ carbon sequestration and wood waste utilization. On the other hand, many engineered wood products use resins containing toxic chemicals. When natural materials are sourced as bonding agents, the end products are much more environmentally friendly.|
|Manufacturing of wood composite panels||Manufacturing wood composite panels can have a significant carbon footprint due to the energy needed to run machinery to process the wood waste and make the resin (when used).|
|Transporting of wood composite panels’ components||Transporting can be another carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of engineered (composite) wood to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles, from forests to manufacturing facilities to customers. Composite panels made with wood waste from local sawmills would have a lower carbon footprint than ones containing imported woods.|
|Usage of wood composite panels||Using wood composite panels can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture storage in the products|
|End-of-life of wood composite panels||The end-of-life stage for wood composite panels is not as sustainable as natural wood because most of these panels are non-biodegradable. However, many products can be recycled, which is the most sustainable scenario for the end-of-life stage.|
We’ll say that sustainable wood composite panels can be made using wood waste and environmentally friendly bonding agents. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product depends on many factors. These include the kind of wood waste, the bonding components, the transportation distances, and the type of hauling vehicles. Let’s dive deeper into each stage and find out how it can be more sustainable.
How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Engineered (Composite) Components
Sourcing wood material for wood composite panels can be sustainable thanks to timber trees’ carbon sequestration and wood waste utilization. On the other hand, many engineered wood products use resins containing toxic chemicals. When natural materials are sourced as bonding agents, the end products are much more environmentally friendly.
What Is Engineered (Composite) Wood Panels Made Of And What Does This Mean for Sustainability
In the last 200 years, many types of wood composite materials have been invented and produced on a commercial scale. Understandably, there is much variation in manufacturing methods, durability in usage, and recyclability at disposal. But these products have, in the most simplistic sense, the same components: wood and adhesive. We will look at each of these for their sustainability.
How Sustainable is the Wood Used for Engineered (Composite) Wood Panels
Conventional wood composite panels are made primarily from wood. For example, a Medium-Density Fiberboard could have 97% of timber and 3% of resins.
The wood component could come from freshly-cut solid logs (virgin wood) or wood waste. The waste materials are chips and shaving leftover after sawing lumber for other products. Some composite panels also use wood recycled and reclaimed from other timber products. Here are some types of engineered wood products and the sources of their wood components:
- Plywood: wood sheets (veneer) peeled, sliced, lathed, or sawn from solid logs
- Block board: a solid wood piece as an inner core and sheets of veneer from virgin wood
- Fiberboard: wood fibers derived from chips and shavings (sawmill waste)
- Steam-pressed scrim lumber: long wood fibers (scrim) extracted from green, small-diameter logs (virgin wood)
- Glued-laminated timber: wood layers from lumber of small size or weak strength or old timber products being recycled
Utilizing wood waste and recycled wood is better for the environment because it doesn’t contribute to deforestation. Thus, waste-based by-products like fiberboards have a more sustainable sourcing process than composite panels like plywood or steam-pressed scrim lumber, which are made from solid logs.
When freshly cut logs are cut, the type of timber trees also matters.
Generally, softwood tree species are fast growers. They regenerate quickly and supply plenty of wood. Conversely, hardwood trees tend to grow slowly. It takes a long time to replace a hardwood tree cut for timber. Thus, sourcing softwood for composite panels is better for the environment.
On top of growing speed, the sustainability of sourcing a certain wood also depends on the timber trees’ population and lifespan. Aspen wood (a hardwood) – the commonly used timber for Oriented Strand Board (OSB) – can be more sustainable than redwood (a softwood). The former comes from short-lived trees that are highly abundant. On the other hand, a redwood log could be cut from century-old trees – homes to many wild animals and insects.
Here are some examples of composite panels and solid wood commonly used for these panels in North America:
|Composite panels||Commonly sourced timber trees|
|Plywood||Douglas fir (softwood), fir (softwood), pine (softwood), spruce (softwood), birch (hardwood), maple (hardwood), oak (hardwood), mahogany (imported hardwood)|
|Block board||Pine (softwood), poplar (hardwood), birch (hardwood)|
|Steam-pressed scrim lumber||Southern yellow pine (softwood), eucalypts (hardwood)|
|Glue-laminated timber||Fir (softwood), spruce (softwood), poplar (hardwood)|
As stated above, plywood can be made from different virgin wood.
The long-lived, slow-growing oak trees arguably support more wildlife than any other tree species in Northern America. Thus, cutting them down has a high ecological cost.
Using mahogany is even worse for the environment. It is an imported wood with elevated carbon emissions and high costs regarding land usage.
Sourcing wood waste for materials like fiberboard doesn’t contribute to deforestation. However, timber harvesting practices remain an important factor. If the wood chips come from illegally cut logs, then panels made with them are not sustainable.
Though it might be difficult to find the origin of the wood source, a good indicator of the sustainability of this component is to check the sustainability certificates available. We will point you in the right direction in the later section.
Materials such as bamboo, rice straw, rubberwood, and sugarcane bagasse, have been used as alternatives to wood to manufacture composite panels. However, we only cover wood composite panels in this article.
How Sustainable Are the Bonding Agents Used for Engineered (Composite) Wood Panels
In the majority of composite panels, resins are used to bind wood pieces or wood fibers together. One exception is a form of hardboard called Masonite, which is made without additional adhesives but utilizes heat and pressure to bind wet wood fibers. In this case, the final products are 100% natural. The sustainability of the wood will be the only concern in the sourcing stage.
However, most composite panels contain resins, and the environmental characteristics of these products alter depending on the adhesive types.
Wood composite glues can be either synthetic or natural-based. The former comes from non-renewable resources and negatively impacts the environment (and potentially people’s health). The latter are alternatives being developed to make more sustainable engineered (composite) wood.
Let’s dive deeper into each group of adhesives.
- Phenol-formaldehyde (PF): typically used for exterior products, for example, softwood plywood and Oriented strand board (OSB)
- Urea-formaldehyde (UF): resins of choice for products requiring dimensional uniformity and surface smoothness, such as particle boards and MDF
- Melamine-formaldehyde (MF): primarily used for decorative laminates
These synthetic glues come from non-renewable resources (i.e., oil and gas) and carry several problems, including health risks and recycling challenges.
They contain formaldehyde, which releases potentially harmful gas (Volatile Organic Compounds) into the air over a period of time. This process is called “off-gassing,” and a high-level exposure can cause skin rashes, shortness of breath, wheezing, and changes in lung function.
Not all glues containing formaldehyde have the same level of off-gassing in terms of quantity and duration. Phenolic resin has a much lower emission than urea-formaldehyde resin.
Though formaldehyde at a high level is toxic, the off-gas release is often very small once the adhesive is set and cured. Engineered wood panels with added formaldehyde are safe to use once it has time to air out and/or sealed (with an appropriate coating).
Alternative adhesives use natural substances from plants or animals. For example, soy adhesive or blood glue have been used in particle boards (Low-Density Fiberboard). There are also MDF (Medium-Density Fiberboard) panels made with potato-based glue. Also, lignin, tannin, or starch are plant-based bonding agents used in some varieties of hardboard (High-Density Fiberboard).
These natural-based glues tend to be better for the environment for two main reasons:
- No risk of letting off Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
- The possibilities of wood composite panels being biodegradable and recyclable
According to a cradle-to-gate life-cycle assessment done on several types of hardboard, for example, using different glues results in varied environmental impacts. 100% natural hardboard panels are better for the environment than hardboards made with phenol resin (so-called conventional hardboards). Calculations showed a 32%-lower carbon emission of hardboard panels using lignin-based adhesive (compared with traditional hardboards).
Where Are Engineered (Composite) Components Usually Sourced From
Using virgin woods to make composite panels, such as plywood or block board, means cutting down trees. One exception is utilizing cork because it is possible to harvest the outer bark for wood.
On the other hand, some wood composite panels, such as LDF, MDF, and HDF, are made with sawmill or forest waste material. The making of these by-products doesn’t affect tree populations. However, the harvesting method still matters in this scenario.
Cutting down trees, especially if done illegally or unsustainably, can result in biodiversity loss regarding the tree species and wild animals that feed and shelter in the woods.
Biodiversity loss regarding tree species
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.
Biodiversity loss regarding forest animals
Cutting down trees also disrupts the forests’ wild animals, which depend on the forest for food and shelter. In this aspect, wood from short-lived trees is generally more sustainable because long-lived trees support more wildlife.
Conversely, some timber species have much shorter lifespans: less than two decades, like a mango tree, or a couple of centuries, like an aspen tree. Alternatively, species like bamboo can be cut after a few years of planting because they regrow quickly.
Besides, the ecological impact of logging varies depending on a tree’s native forests and the forestry management practices. The more biodiverse the forests, such as tropical rainforests in South America or Southeast Asia, the higher the cost of biodiversity loss. These bio hotspots also face rampant illegal logging and unsustainable logging, often due to lax management, to make matters worse.
Here is the list of woods from tropical forests, some of which are the world’s richest in biodiversity. You need to purchase these woods with caution, whether it is in the form of natural wood or wood composite panels:
The rule of thumb for you as a consumer to tackle problems caused by illegal logging is to source sustainable woods. We will point you in the right direction with engineered (composite) wood at the end of this article.
In total, logging of forestry products from plantations accounts for 26% of forest loss, a combination of deforestation and forest degradation. However, in tropical climates, the loss in bio-diverse forests is more significant (and sometimes less properly recorded) than that in temperate, well-managed logging forests.
How Sustainably Can Engineered (Composite) Panels Be Sourced
Wood is generally considered a sustainable material because it is renewable. The growing and regrowing of wood also help mitigate the climate crisis through carbon sequestration.
As a tree grows, it absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. The tree acts as a carbon sink during its lifespan. The longer the lifespan, the more carbon a tree uptakes and keeps out of the atmosphere.
Being a carbon sink means that they are taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. Carbon is then stored in branches, the trunk, and the root system. The bigger and taller a tree gets, the more it can hold.
During this growing stage, timber trees uptake carbon, generally a lot more than emissions from fuel consumption during forest management processes, including regeneration, thinning, and harvest.
A Cradle-to-Gate Life-Cycle Assessment of US wood composite panels calculated the carbon uptake for 1 m3 of studied wood composite panels and the total carbon emissions as follows:
|Composite Panels||Carbon Uptake (kg CO2-eq)||Carbon Emission (kg CO2-eq)|
|LDF (particle board)||1,268||403|
Note: Composite panels contain more than 90% wood fibers
All these engineered wood materials have a negative carbon footprint. The amount of carbon stored is two to three times higher than the amount emitted.
Composite panels made with solid logs like plywood have similar carbon footprint profiles. For example, a life-cycle assessment of Sengon plywood found that 641 kg of atmospheric CO2 was stored in 1m3 Sengon plywood. Additionally, up to 463 kilograms of biogenic carbon per m3 are fixed in the soil and in the intermediate plantations. The uptake total is much higher than the fossil CO2 emissions (around 577 kilograms per 1m3) throughout the entire life cycle.
However, it is important to stress the ecological costs of cutting down trees to make composite panels like plywood. They are often much higher and more difficult to fully measure than using wood waste.
How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Engineered (Composite) Panels
Manufacturing wood composite panels can have a significant carbon footprint due to the energy needed to run machinery to process the wood waste and make the resin (when used).
Since the first composite panels – a form of wet-processed fiberboard – were created near the end of the 1800s, engineered wood manufacturing has changed significantly. However, it typically involves some of the below steps (though not always in the same order):
- Cutting wood pieces or fibers into the required sizes
- Preparing wood pieces or fibers often with heat and pressure
- Adding resin application at the right moment depending on the processing method
- Drying wood pieces or fibers to the desired moisture content
- Forming panels, often with heat and pressure
During these manufacturing steps, the need for fuel consumption comes from operating machinery, such as refiner, dryer, blender, etc.
Making glues also involves fuel consumption.
When fossil fuels are needed to run machinery or generate electricity, it adds to the total carbon emissions. However, renewable energy can be used during these processes. Possible sources of renewable energy are solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass.
For example, renewable resources accounted for about two-thirds of the total energy consumption in manufacturing hardboards, with biomass being the main source (66%), according to a Cradle-to-Gate Life-Cycle Assessment of US wood composite panels.
How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Engineered (Composite) Panels
Transporting can be another carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of engineered (composite) wood to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles, from forests to manufacturing facilities to customers.
Composite panels made with wood waste from local sawmills would have a lower carbon footprint than ones containing imported woods.
Here is a list of popular woods that can be hauled from the US forests:
|Maple (soft and hard)|
|Oak (white and red)|
Because of their various weights, some American woods have a higher transporting carbon footprint than others. Check our articles for individual woods for the specifics.
And here are examples of imported woods, which travel long distances to reach the US market:
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 suppliers how their wood composite panels are transported and opt for the more sustainable option.
According to a Cradle-to-Gate Life-Cycle Assessment of US wood composite panels, these wood-based materials are more environmentally friendly than other building materials like cement, steel, plastic, and glass. The carbon footprint calculated for those non-wood materials is much higher than wood composite panels. For example, in the case of steel vs hardboard, it is about 20 times higher.
How Sustainable Is the Usage of Engineered (Composite) Panels
Using wood composite panels can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture storage in the products.
The durability of a product also depends on the type of wood used. For example, softwood plywood has five classes of strength based on the softwood used. The first class, including Douglas fir and Southern pine, has the highest strength and, thus, the most durable. Eastern pine and Balsam fir belong to the lower classes, making less durable plywood.
Some varieties of composite panes are biodegradable, while some others can be recycled at designated centers, extending the carbon storage role of this engineered wood.
How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Engineered (Composite) Panels
The end-of-life stage for wood composite panels is not as sustainable as natural wood because most of these panels are non-biodegradable. However, many products can be recycled, which is the most sustainable scenario for the end-of-life stage.
There are two scenarios for wood composite panels at the end of their life:
- They can end up in landfills and don’t decompose. In this case, it keeps its role as carbon storage.
- 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.
100% natural composite panels can be recycled fully. On the other hand, products containing synthetic resins require the kind of facilities that are not always available at household recycling. However, some local Household Waste Recycling Centers will take composite panels, so make sure you check in your region.
How Can You Buy Engineered (Composite) Wood More Sustainably
As far as the wood component is concerned, relevant environmental and original certifications would help you to pick a sustainable option. Reliable certifications for sustainable woods are:
An FSC certification ensures that the wood in your composite panels 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.
Regarding glues, there are more environmentally friendly options that you can choose. Whenever possible, go for no-added formaldehyde panels. This will lower the toxicity and volatile organic compound emissions into the environment.
Similarly, if you are to seal your wood composite furniture (to lower the risk of VOC emissions), pick the most environmentally friendly options available.
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.
You can buy engineered (composite) wood as an alternative to solid wood. Some varieties of these panels are an excellent way of utilizing wood waste. However, you need to ensure that the wood component comes from sustainably managed forests. Also, opt for the option with no-added formaldehyde to reduce toxic gases in the environment. Most importantly, use composite products for as long as possible, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange it to be recycled.
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