How Sustainable Is Olive Wood? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is Olive Wood? Here Are the Facts

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Quynh Nguyen

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Olive wood is a by-product of much-priced fruit from the same tree. It comes from the trunk of very old trees that no longer bear fruit. Small pieces of wood can also be utilized from pruned branches of fruiting trees. Turning olive wood into household items is, thus, sustainable usage of the would-be waste material of the olive orchard. Still, we had to ask: How sustainable is it to buy products made of olive wood?

Olive wood is sustainable thanks to the carbon sequestration of long-lived olive trees. Indoor products made of olive wood are also more durable than most other woods, prolonging the carbon storage. More sustainably, olive wood comes as a by-product – an extra benefit of using land for olive groves.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of olive wood used as kitchenware or other small decorative items. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potentials, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable olive wood. 

Here’s How Sustainable Olive Wood Is

Olive wood is a hard and rich-colored wood priced for decorative household items, especially kitchenware. The supply of olive wood is rather limited because the main source is pruned branches and trimmings. Every few hundreds or more years, when an olive tree finishes fruiting, the whole tree can be cut down for timber. 

Olive wood is a rare (and, thus, expensive) material. However, it is a very eco-friendly timber mainly due to its nature as a by-product of the olive fruit. 

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 olive wood, we assess the life-cycle of olive wood in household items like a bowl or an earring. 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 olive wood. 

The life-cycle stages of olive wood Each state’s sustainability
Growing of olive wood Growing olive trees in their native lands is sustainable because of the carbon sequestration potential (i.e., capturing and storing carbon) and because two products (fruit and timber) are harvested from the same tree.
Manufacturing of olive wood The manufacturing of olive wood products can have a relatively low carbon footprint. It’s because 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 olive wood Transporting is a carbon-intensive stage in the life cycle of olive wood furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores. The closer it is from the grove to the market, the lower the carbon footprint of this stage would be. 
Usage of olive wood Olive wood is more durable than most other woods when used for indoor products. Using olive wood items can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the product life. 
End-of-life of olive wood The end-of-life stage for olive wood furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy.

Overall, olive wood is sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a chopping board or a bowl, 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 Olive Wood

Growing olive trees in their native lands is sustainable because of the carbon sequestration potential (i.e., capturing and storing carbon) and because two products (fruit and timber) are harvested from the same tree.

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

Olive wood comes from two tree species: Olea euro paea and Olea capensis. These are evergreen, flowering, hardwood species native to Europe and Africa. 

Olive trees grow very slowly, with height increases of less than 12 inches per year. That is half or less the average growth rate of hardwood species like soft maple or black cherry. These faster growing local species can also be used for kitchenware projects. 

While olive trees are reaching maturity and bearing fruits, wood harvesting limits to branches pruned  to stimulate new growth. Olive trees are not cut down for timber until it finishes fruiting, which could take centuries

How Sustainably Does Olive Wood Grow

Olive wood’s sustainability lies in e and storage of carbon, starting with the long-lived trees and continuing with durable olive wood products. This timber is harvested as a  by-product of the olive fruit crop, making it even more environmentally friendly. 

  • Carbon sequestration: As olive trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink during their long lifespan, with many trees having reached between 1000 to 2000 years old. This means that they are taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the climate crisis.

Carbon is stored in the root system and in the tree. An average olive tree can reach 50 feet in height and 5 feet in trunk diameter, with exceptional trees as high as 130 feet.

  • Land use: Using land as olive groves creates two economically beneficial products: olive fruit and olive wood. The fruit is the main harvest. The wood is the by-product. Once olive trees finish bearing fruit, they can be cut down for timber. Before then, a small amount of wood can be harvested from pruned branches and trimmings.

Utilizing olive wood to make household items is much more environmentally friendly than leaving it to rot and, thus, releasing carbon into the atmosphere much earlier. It also reduces the risk of orchards burning wood as waste at the site, releasing carbon immediately after cutting down branches. 

Where Is Olive Wood Usually Grown

Olive trees grow naturally throughout the Mediterranean region and some regions of Africa and Asia. These tree species grow in light soil, even on well-drained clay, but they thrive on chalky soil. Limestone slopes and coastal climate are the best growing conditions for olive trees.

Olive trees have been cultivated in the Mediterranean basin for centuries, growing in orchards with a relatively stable ecosystem.

The centuries-old olive trees have many cavities in the trunks, offering shelter for vertebrates and invertebrates. Olive trees’ flowers attract more than one hundred insect species, which in turn attract many birds. At least 31 bird species have been identified in olive orchards. Mammals have also been detected in olive groves in a relatively large number. 

It is often the case that olive groves nettle into a wilder landscape with semi-natural areas, shrub hedge, and woodland strips. This means more birds and animals can move in and out of the cultivated area, increasing the biodiversity of such olive orchards. 

Undoubtedly, cutting down olive trees would disrupt these wild animals. However, olive trees would only be cut down at the end of their fruiting life when they are centuries or even a millennium old. Thus, such displacement of animals doesn’t happen so frequently, compared with when trees are cut down every few decades. 

Illegal logging of olive trees exists in different parts of the world, such as Palestine, Syria, or the Greek islands. Loggers often cut down an entire grove of ancient trees illegally. Even if these trees aren’t producing much fruit, they still have other benefits. Farmers can sell the timber for extra income, or wildlife can live and thrive in the olive groves.

The only way 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 olive 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 Olive Wood

The manufacturing of olive wood products can have a relatively low carbon footprint. It’s because 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 olive wood furniture involves pruning branches and/or cutting down trees and turning them into lumber in a sawmill. Sawing is an electricity-consuming step. 

The next step is to dry lumber and turn it into household items. 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. 

It is difficult to dry olive wood because it is oily and dense. When a high heat kiln, for example, is used to rush the drying process, the risks of checking, splitting, and honeycomb increase. Cuts from branches are also more prone to warping.  

Kiln drying olive wood must be done very slowly. If fossil fuels are used to run the kiln, it would significantly increase the total carbon emissions. However, burning wood waste (biomass) generates energy to 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). 

Manufacturers can also air-dry olive wood to reduce the damages. However, the process takes years. For example, African wild olive timber takes four to 10 years to dry naturally

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Olive Wood

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

The closer it is from the grove to the market, the lower the carbon footprint of this stage would be. 

Though olive trees originally come from the Mediterranean, they are now cultivated in many world corners, including the US. The transporting carbon footprint would be significantly lower for items sold in the US if the timber originates from North American olive groves. 

Conversely, olive wood from, for example, Southern Europe would have a higher transporting carbon footprint than regionally available wood, such as cherry or black walnut.

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 Olive Wood

Using olive wood items can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the product life. 

Olive wood lacks the necessary natural oils to repel insects and rots. Thus, products made with this material are prone to damage if exposed to outdoor elements. 

However, olive wood is more durable than most other woods when used for indoor products, thanks to its density and hardness. With proper care, products made of olive wood will last a lifetime

When olive 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 Olive Wood

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

There are a few scenarios for olive wood products – such as decorative serving spoon or jewelry – 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
  1. 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. 
  1. In another end-of-life scenario, products like an olive wood chopping board can be burned for biomass energy displacing coal or natural gas in generating electricity

Olive wood is rare and most likely comes from pruned branches and trimmings. It is often used for small household items like kitchenware. In this case, the offset won’t be as high as there is much less waste for burning. However, as olive wood is a by-product of the tree’s fruit, the wood used to make household items could have been considered waste and sometimes burned otherwise. 

How Can You Buy Olive 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 olive 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 products made from olive wood as long as the material comes from verified sources that follow sustainable management practices. Opt for the wood that travels the shortest distance using the greenest mode of transportation. And, to make it even more sustainable, use any olive items 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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