How Sustainable Is Maple Wood? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is Maple Wood? Here Are the Facts

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Quynh Nguyen

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The maple family, a genus called Acer, is much more than their striking colors. The trees provide food and shelter for many birds and mammals, while maple timber is an excellent choice for furniture, music, and more. Even though this tree group enjoys wide popularity in the eastern half of the United States, the loss of wildlife habitat due to logging makes us ask how sustainable it is to buy products made out of maple.

Maple wood is sustainable because maple trees capture carbon from the atmosphere, while maple furniture works as long-lasting carbon storage. Burning wood waste also creates energy, substituting fossil fuel. Because of its abundance, it is possible to harvest the wood without harming the forests.

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

Here’s How Sustainable Maple Wood Is

Maple, especially the soft maple species, is an affordable hardwood that can be cut and shaped into any furniture you desire. It is strong, has a gorgeous look, and ages gracefully. The large growing stock and the carbon storage potential make maple wood a sustainable material.

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 maple wood, we assess the life-cycle of furniture, flooring, or musical instruments. 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 made with maple wood. However, you will also find some cradle-to-gate data where relevant. 

The life-cycle stages of maple woodEach stage’s sustainability
Growing of maple woodGrowing maple trees is sustainable thanks to their abundance and the potential for carbon sequestration (i.e., capturing and storing carbon).
Manufacturing of maple woodTurning maple 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. 
Transporting of maple woodTransporting is a relatively carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of maple furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores.   
Usage of maple woodUsing maple furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 
End-of-life of maple woodThe end-of-life stage for maple furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy. 

Overall, we can say that maple wood is sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a bed or a cabinet, 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 Maple Wood

Growing maple trees is sustainable thanks to their abundance and the potential for carbon sequestration (i.e., capturing and storing carbon).

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

Maple is a hardwood tree growing at a slow-to-fast rate depending on the species. There are soft maple and hard maple species distinguished by the hardness of the wood. The former,  despite the name, provides lumber with high durability. Their growth rate varies from medium to fast and can be more than 24 inches per year. As the hard maple species grow more slowly, anywhere from less than 12 inches to 24 inches per year, they also provide even denser and harder wood, about 25% more than soft varieties. 

How Sustainable Does Maple Wood Grow

Maple’s sustainability lies in the potential for carbon sequestration and the species’ large growing stock:

Where Is Maple Wood Usually Grown

Maple trees grow across the North American continent as well as Europe and Asia. In the U.S., red maple has a longer north-to-south range than any other tree species. It can be found in the entire eastern forests from Newfoundland to southern Florida. The sugar maple, also known for its syrup, grows in the Northeast of the U.S. and southern Canada. 

There are over 100 species of maple trees, most of which are native to Asia. North America native maple species include sugar maple, red maple, silver maple, boxelder, and bigleaf maple. Sugar maple, or rock maple, is a hard maple species, while red maple, silver maple, boxelder, and bigleaf maple are soft maple. 

Maple trees grow in mixed hardwood forests, alongside species like birch, beech, or oak. Such forests have an important ecological role as they support a variety of mammals, birds, and insects. The fruits of maple trees are food for squirrels and many other rodents. Rabbits and deer eat the tender shoots and leaves of red maples while white-tailed deer, moose, and snowshoe hare browse sugar maple trees. Sugar maple leaves fall in a large quantity every fall and promote the success of earthworms. 

While cutting down maple for timber doesn’t normally kill the trees, these wild animals lose their valuable habitats. For example, there is evidence that the Leaf Flycatcher bird species experienced stress when there is a decrease in the Sugar Maples’ foliage. Animal replacement is a legitimate concern when it comes to sustainably managing commercially used maple. 

Illegal logging of maple in the U.S. is unfortunately not non-existent, such as the Westcoast’s big leaf maple poaching problem in the Westcoast. Bigleaf maple timber is highly prized and thus, sought after. It has a distinct marbling pattern to make beautiful furniture and the excellent ability to conduct sounds and waves, making it ideal for musical instruments

Improperly managed logging (including illegal activities) can cause many problems for forest equality and diversity. 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. 

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 Maple Wood

Turning maple 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 maple 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. Maple dries fairly fast, three times faster than slow drying woods like oak or hickory. It means a low energy consumption for kiln drying. Besides, a high proportion of energy can come from burning wood waste. At least 90% of all thermal energy used for kiln drying in the U.S. hardwood sector is derived from biomass.

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Maple Wood

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

As maple is distributed widely in the U.S, a piece of maple furniture would have a lower carbon footprint than that made from imported woods like mahogany, providing they are both sold in the U.S. 

The actual emission during this stage depends on the type of vehicles used, the fuel they need, and the distance the wood travels. 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. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Maple Wood

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

Maple is one of the most durable hardwood species in the U.S. Though soft maple timber is not as strong as hard maple timber, it still makes long-lasting (and gorgeous) furniture, flooring, or music instruments. Because kiln-dried maple wood is resilient against warping, molding, or cracking over the years or in differing humidity levels, maple furniture like a cabinet can last for 30 years or more.  

When 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 as a good way of keeping the 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. 

In one calculation on the cradle-to-factory-gate of a maple bed, a third of the carbon emissions during processing, transporting, and manufacturing the product is offset by the product’s carbon storage.

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

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

There are a few scenarios for wood products – furniture, flooring, and household items – 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. 

In another end-of-life scenario, products like a maple bed can be burned for biomass energy displacing coal or natural gas in generating electricity

With smaller household items, like a doorknob or a small chair, 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. 

How Can You Buy Maple 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 maple 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. 

The best way for you, as an individual, to tackle problems caused by illegal logging is to ensure that the maple timber of your desired products is sourced sustainably from forests where animal replacement is accounted for. We will point you in the right direction with maple in a later section.

Another thing you can do to help tackle the poaching of bigleaf maple is to volunteer with timber tracking. You can help gather leaf, seed, and wood samples to create a DNA database of trees, which could help authorities determine whether a log was taken from protected areas. 

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 maple wood as long as the material comes from sustainably managed forests. And, to make it even more sustainable, use any maple 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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