How Sustainable Is Pine Wood? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is Pine Wood? Here Are the Facts

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Quynh Nguyen

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Pine trees make up a large part of the evergreen conifer forests. In fact, one in four American cone-bearing trees is a pine. Though pine trees are available in many parts of the US, logging for pine timber could mean the loss of valuable wildlife habitat. So we had to ask: How sustainable is it to buy products made out of pine wood?

Pine wood is sustainable thanks to its carbon capturing during its fast growth and carbon storage in long-lasting pine furniture. And as pine trees are distributed widely in the US (and Europe), the transportation of pine wood has a relatively lower carbon footprint than more exotic, imported woods. 

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

Here’s How Sustainable Pine Wood Is

Pine is a widespread conifer, with around 60 species all over the US. Pine trees can grow tall, provide plenty of beautiful wood and continue to live for a long time. The fast rate of regeneration and the carbon storage potential make it 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 ash wood, we assess the life-cycle of furniture and flooring. 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 pine wood. Where it is relevant, we also use data from cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of pine woodEach stage’s sustainability
Growing of pine woodGrowing pine trees is sustainable thanks to its potential for carbon sequestration (i.e., capturing and storing carbon) and its ability to keep growing very tall relatively fast and sustaining the lumber stock for a long time. 
Manufacturing of pine woodTurning pine 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 pine woodTransporting is a relatively carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of pine furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores. However, as pine trees are distributed widely in the US, the transportation of pine wood has a relatively lower carbon footprint.
Usage of pine woodUsing pine furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 
End-of-life of pine woodThe end-of-life stage for pine furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy. 

We can say that pine wood is sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a cabinet or a table, depends on many factors, especially the distance and mode of transportation and the land-use history. Let’s dive deeper into each stage and find out how it can be more sustainable. 

How Sustainable Is the Growing of Pine Wood

Growing pine trees is sustainable thanks to its potential for carbon sequestration (i.e., capturing and storing carbon), its ability to keep growing very tall relatively fast, and sustaining the lumber stock for a long time. 

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

Pine is as softwood of the evergreen conifer family (which has around 120 species), native primarily to northern temperate regions. 

North American forests host around 50 varieties of pine, dividing into three subcategories based on growth rate. Fast-growing species, such as eastern white pine, can add 2ft to 3ft and per year. Medium-fast growing species grow about 1ft to 2ft per year. Examples of this group are red pine and Austrian pine. The annual growth rate of the slowest growing pine species, like Virginia pine and longleaf pine, is a maximum of one foot per year. 

How Sustainable Is It Growing Pine Trees for Wood

The reasons for pine being a sustainable material lie in the tree’s potential for carbon sequestration and diverse land use. 

  • Carbon sequestration: The carbon sequestration potential of pine trees is significant. As they grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. During their long lifespan, up to 400 years (eastern white pine) or 500 years (sugar pine), with the current record set at 5,072 years from a Bristlecone pine tree  – they act as a carbon sink. It means that they are taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. And they can store a lot because they grow tall and large. Eastern white pine trees and sugar pine trees, for example, can grow taller than 200 feet, twice the height of the average white oak tree.  
  • Diverse land use: Pine trees grow throughout the United States, north and south, east and west. They adapt and thrive under a wide variety of soil and climate. Certain pine species are the first to take hold and grow on land after a natural or manufactured disturbance

Where Is Pine Wood Usually Grown

Pine trees are native to Europe and North America. In North America, pine trees can be found as far north as Newfoundland and as far south as Texas. A lot of species grow in California, some others grow in Virginia, and many grow in between. 

In the United States, native pine species include eastern white pine, longleaf pine, southern yellow pine, bristlecone pine, sugar pine, Ponderosa pine, and Loblolly pine. Eastern white pine covers much of Northeast America, while southern yellow pine grows on 78 million hectares of forest land in many southern states. Both species are widely available, and thus, more sustainable than species like the western pine – Idaho white, which has limited supply. 

When pine trees grow among hardwoods in mixed forests, they are a part of the ecosystem. Their seeds are food, and their canopy provides shelter for many birds and mammals. Woodpeckers, for example, use the pine forest as both a nesting area and a food-searching ground. Deer and wild turkeys are also common in pine forests. 

Mixed forests offer better habitats for a wider range of wild animals thanks to the variety of plant and tree species. However, in the south of the United States, some types of pine species, including radiata, are increasingly planted on single-species plantations. Such plantations don’t support diverse wildlife like mixed naturally grown forests because the latter have more organic matter and store more carbon

Southern pine plantations can also be the cause of deforestation. Researchers from Ohio State University estimate that “an area of mainly hardwood and natural pine forests roughly the size of New Hampshire and Vermont will be chopped down to make way for pine plantations by 2030 in just three Southern states. And when natural mixed hardwood or pine forests (rather than old and abandoned agricultural lands) are cleared for such plantations, a huge amount of carbon is released into the atmosphere. This deforestation translates into roughly 700,000 tons more carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere annually, or 21 million tons over the 30-year period.” 

A similar problem with a much larger extent is when radiata pine plantations replace tropical rainforests in countries where radiata pine has become an invasive non-native species. 

Forest loss, either through illegal logging or deforestation for forestry production, has serious consequences on our ecosystems. 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 Pine Wood

Turning pine 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 pine furniture involves cutting down trees and turning them into lumber in a sawmill. Sawing is an electricity-consuming step. A study assessing cradle-to-gate production of softwood production in the Northeast and Northcentral of the US found out that sawing consumes the highest proportion of electricity in the manufacturing of softwood lumber. 

The next step is to dry lumber and then turn it into furniture. It takes 60 to 200 days to air dry green 25-mm lumber of eastern white pine to 20% moisture content. In comparison, the numbers are the same for ash, which is a fast-drying hardwood. Western pine and southern pine species dry even faster than eastern white pine. 

Pine timber used in furniture manufacturing is often dried in a kiln. An LCA study on cradle-to-gate production of American softwood indicates that kiln drying consumes the most fuels, but 63% of the needed amount comes from renewable sources

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Pine Wood

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

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

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 choice. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Pine Wood

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

Though pine is classified as softwood, it doesn’t mean pine timber is not as hard as hardwood. In fact, southern yellow pine is harder than some hardwoods, such as basswood or cottonwood. The common pine species in the US are slightly durable. Pine timber has a durability of 10 to 15 years, with some structures being more than 30 years old

When pine 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 Pine Wood

The end-of-life stage for pine 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, they’d keep their 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 softwood framing lumber 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 pine table 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 Pine 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 pine 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. 

Because pine plantations don’t often support as much wildlife as mixed forests where pine grows naturally, you should be cautious when buying plantation pine timber. Is it possible to check forestry practices of the plantation, such as the application of silviculture – where plantation management integrates the biological aspects of growing trees with socio-economics?. Can you find out if the plantation takes the place of old farmland or original forests? The former would be a lot more sustainable than the latter. If you can’t find the answers to such questions, it is best to avoid pine wood from plantations. 

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