How Sustainable Is Meranti Wood? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is Meranti Wood? Here Are the Facts

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Quynh Nguyen

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Meranti is a versatile tropical wood that is fairly easy to work with in a variety of household projects. And meranti tree species used to dominate their native rainforests in abundance. However, high demand and lax regulation have led to decades of overexploitation. And illegal logging and unsustainable practices reduce the tree population as well as the forests’ invaluable biodiversity. So we had to ask: How sustainable is it to buy products made of meranti wood?

Meranti wood is generally a sustainable wood thanks to carbon sequestration and carbon offset. However, the widespread illegal logging, its adverse impact on the forest ecosystems, and long transporting distances make this tropical wood less sustainable than timber from local temperate forests.

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

Here’s How Sustainable Meranti Wood Is

Meranti is a tropical hardwood that has found its way into many furniture projects. Easy to work with, meranti timber is ideal for plywood and veneer. 

However, the population of these tree species has decreased significantly in the last few decades due to overexploitation, making meranti timber increasingly unsustainable. Still, it is important to note that wood is better for the environment than plastic, especially when sourced from sustainably managed forests.

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 meranti wood, we assess the life-cycle of meranti 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 meranti wood. Where it is relevant, we also use data from cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of meranti wood woodEach stage’s sustainability
Growing of meranti wood woodGrowing meranti in its native tropical forests is sustainable because of carbon sequestration and carbon storage in the tree and its rooting system. However, logging practices are a cause for concern because of the rampant illegal logging, unsustainable practices, and wood originality fraud.
Manufacturing of meranti wood woodTurning meranti wood into furniture or flooring can have a relatively low carbon footprint when wood waste is utilized to make by-products or biomass pellets to offset the carbon emissions during harvesting and processing. Significant reduction in carbon emissions can also come from using fossil-free energy. 
Transporting of meranti wood woodTransporting is a carbon-intensive stage in the life cycle of meranti wood furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores. As meranti wood furniture in the US would come from Southeast Asia, transporting meranti wood products has a higher carbon footprint than furniture made with regionally available wood.
Usage of meranti wood woodUsing meranti wood furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 
End-of-life of meranti wood woodThe end-of-life stage for meranti wood furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy.

We’ll say that it is possible to find sustainable meranti wood for your furniture. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product 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 Meranti Wood

Growing meranti in its native tropical forests is sustainable because of carbon sequestration and carbon storage in the tree and its rooting system. However, logging practices are a cause for concern because of the rampant illegal logging, unsustainable practices, and wood originality fraud.

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

Meranti wood is a hardwood from the tropical Shorea tree species. There are five groups of meranti timber, distinguished based on the color of the heartwood: dark red meranti, light red meranti, white meranti, yellow meranti, and balau. 

In total, there are about 200 Shorea species (the one meranti belongs to) with different growth rates among and within each group. For example, in 40 years, red meranti trees may reach a diameter as small as 19 inches and as big as 41 inches (105 cm), and somewhere in between. For a yellow meranti tree species – Shorea maxima, such measurement could be as low as 15 inches, indicating a slower growth rate. In plantations in West Java, trees from the Shorea leprosula species – classified as red meranti – were recorded with mean annual height increments of 40 to 50 inches

How Sustainably Does Meranti Wood Grow

The alarming issues that make harvesting meranti wood less sustainable are the species’ dwindling population and the diminishing of the earth’s critical natural habitats

  • Dwindling population: The high demand for meranti timber drives unsustainable and illegal logging practices in Southeast Asian tropical forests – the epidemic home to most meranti species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) put 148 species of the 196 Shorea species (the one meranti belongs to) on its red list due to the drastic reduction in their population. The population of dark red meranti species, for example, has reduced by over 80% in the past three generations. The reasons for such decline were excessive logging, insufficient natural regeneration, and a slow recovery rate. A dwindling population means sustainable harvesting of meranti would require a longer felling rotation to give the forests more time to replenish. If it is not the case, harvesting is not sustainable. 
  • Eco-cost of land use: The Southeast Asian tropical forests where meranti tree species grow natively have incredible and unmatched biodiversity. When loggers bulldoze roads into those pristine forests to cut down trees, they kill wild animals and threaten their habitat, leading to mass distinction of plants and animals that have occurred on Earth for millions of years. The biodiversity loss, especially in old-growth rainforests, has a very high eco-cost, representing the use of land to grow and harvest wood. 

When meranti trees are harvested from sustainably managed forests, the carbon sequestration and carbon storage in tree trunks and roots (as well as in timber and wood products) contribute to its being more sustainable than materials like wood plastic composite.  Besides, many meranti tree species are great candidates for biodiversity-rich agroforestry systems. 

  • A part of agroforestry systems: Many meranti tree species are suitable for incorporating into agroforestry systems. Those systems can be more biodiverse than monocropping. For example, red meranti trees can be incorporated into palm oil and rubber plantations. Another example is white meranti as part of a cropping system that starts with upland rice, coffee, fruit trees, and finally the harvest of meranti after 30 years. Such so-called dammar (white meranti) gardens support a high degree of biological diversity

Where Is Meranti Wood Usually Grown

Meranti wood trees grow natively in islands of Southeast Asia (i.e., Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines) and inland from India and Sri Lanka to Thailand and Vietnam. 

Harvesting meranti wood from natural forests can result in biodiversity loss regarding the tree species and wild animals that feed and shelter in the forests. 

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 meranti wood trees also disrupts the forests’ wild animals, which depend on the forest for food and shelter. Because some meranti tree species grow in rainforests, home to a wide range of animal and plant species, such biodiversity loss has a very high ecological cost.

Scientists from the Delft University of Technology have developed an indicator for the “eco-costs of land-use,” factoring in the environmental price of biodiversity (loss) in harvesting and using wood for furniture. They calculated that such cost for a window frame made with old-growth meranti from an FSC-certified forest is 22 times higher than when the window is made with wild pine. However, using meranti wood from a plantation reduces the eco-cost significantly, resulting in a reduction of the eco-cost by 11 fold

Illegal logging and unsustainable logging are rampant in Southeast Asia, where meranti species grow, which challenges the sustainability of the meranti industry.

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 meranti 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. 

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 Meranti Wood

Turning meranti wood into furniture or flooring can have a relatively low carbon footprint when wood waste is utilized to make by-products or biomass pellets to offset the carbon emissions during harvesting and processing. Significant reduction in carbon emissions can also come from using fossil-free energy. 

The first step of manufacturing meranti wood furniture involves cutting down trees and turning them into lumber in a sawmill. Sawing is an electricity-consuming step. The electrical energy and diesel fuel energy needed would vary from sawmill to sawmill and species to species. In an environmental performance assessment comparing two sawmills in Malaysia, the processing of dark red meranti species required more energy and fuel than that of light red meranti species. 

The next step is to dry lumber and turn 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. Again, the drying speed varies among different meranti species, anywhere from rapid to normal

Many common meranti tree species dry quickly. For example, a 25 mm thick board made of rapid-drying meranti wood could take about 6 days to kiln-dry from 50 to 10% moisture content, while 50 mm thick boards will require about 20 days.

If fossil fuel is used to operate a kiln, it adds to the total carbon emissions. However, burning wood waste (biomass) generates energy that could replace fossil fuels. Luckily, at least 90% of all thermal energy used for kiln drying in the US hardwood sector comes from biomass (instead of fossil fuels). 

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Meranti Wood

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

As meranti wood furniture in the US would come from Southeast Asia, transporting meranti wood products has a higher carbon footprint than furniture made with regionally available wood, like maple or pine.

The actual emission during the transporting 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 to and within the US and opt for the more sustainable option. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Meranti Wood

Using meranti wood furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the product life. 

Meranti wood is not considered highly durable and, therefore, often used in the form of plywood or veneer. However, when treated and cared for, a window frame made with meranti from plantations in Southeast Asia, for example, can last up to 35 years

When meranti 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 Meranti Wood

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

There are a few scenarios for wood products – furniture and flooring at the end of their life. 

  1. They can end up in landfills and don’t decompose. In this case, they’d keep their 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 meranti wood table can be burned for biomass energy displacing coal or natural gas in generating electricity.  

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

A gate-to-gate life-cycle assessment resulted in an average carbon footprint of 446 kg CO2-eq per one cubic meter of meranti plywood. However, when considering the end-of-life phase, which is the main carbon offset phase, the carbon footprint of meranti products could be much lower. 

For example, a cradle-to-grave assessment of various window frames showed a negative carbon footprint for meranti frames – much lower than that of structures made from synthetic plastics. 

How Can You Buy Meranti 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 meranti 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 meranti furniture as long as the material comes from sustainably managed forests. However, because meranti wood comes a long way from Southeast Asia, you should check the means of transportation and their sustainability factors. And, as a rule to most consumer products, use any meranti wood furniture for as long as you can, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled fully.

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