How Sustainable Is Poplar Wood? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is Poplar Wood? Here Are the Facts

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Quynh Nguyen

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Poplar wood is soft and lightweight – easy to work and less energy-consuming to harvest and transport. Any timber cut for furniture and household items could be quickly replenished because poplar trees are generally fast-growing. However, cutting these trees can hurt wildlife that depends on them for food and shelter. So we had to ask: How sustainable is it to buy products made of poplar wood?

Poplar wood is sustainable thanks to the trees’ carbon sequestration potential. Transporting emissions are relatively low because of poplar’s lightweight nature and the wide distribution of these species in the US. Also, the rapid growth and large growing stock enable sustainable timber harvesting. 

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

Here’s How Sustainable Poplar Wood Is

Poplar wood is a sustainable material because of the poplar trees’ carbon sequestration potential and the carbon offset value at the end of the product’s life.  

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 poplar wood, we assess the life-cycle of projects like furniture frames or decorative items. 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 spruce wood. Where it is relevant, we also use data from cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of poplar woodEach stage’s sustainability
Growing of poplar woodGrowing poplar trees is sustainable thanks to these species’ wide distribution and rapid growth rates. Carbon sequestration means growing poplar trees can help counter climate change. 
Manufacturing of poplar woodTurning poplar wood into furniture or decorative household items can have a relatively low carbon footprint. Wood waste can be 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 poplar woodTransporting is a carbon-intensive stage in the life cycle of furniture made with poplar wood. The reason is the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores. As poplar trees are distributed widely in the US, a piece of furniture made with poplar wood would have a lower carbon footprint than imported wood. 
Usage of poplar woodUsing poplar furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 
End-of-life of poplar woodThe end-of-life stage for poplar furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy.

Overall, poplar wood is sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, be it furniture inlays or veneers for plywood, 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 Poplar Wood

Growing poplar trees is sustainable thanks to these species’ wide distribution and rapid growth rates. Carbon sequestration means growing poplar trees can help counter climate change. 

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

The term “poplar” is used rather loosely – botanically speaking – in the US. It is reserved for timber from fast-growing hardwood tree species in the Populus genus and the Liriodendron genus. These two genera belong to different plant families: Salicaceae and Magnoliaceae. 

All poplar woods have a few common traits despite being not closely related. The two most sustainability-relevant characteristics shared by these woods are: 

  • Lightweight timber
  • Large-sized trees 

Poplar is an umbrella term under which species have different common names. True poplars vs. fake poplars categories are also used for timber from these species and genera. 

Firstly, there are the true poplars – the Populus tree species. This group contains some woods with the word “poplar” in their names (such as balsam poplar or black poplar) and others that don’t. The latter are called aspen and cottonwood. 

Here are some true poplar woods and their botanic names: 

Poplar 

  • White poplar (Populus alba)
  • Balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera)
  • Black poplar (Populus nigra)
  • Fremont poplar (Populus fremontii)

Aspen

  • European aspen (Populus tremula)
  • Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides)
  • Bigtooth aspen (Populus grandidentata)

Cottonwood

  • Narrowleaf cottonwood (Populus angustifolia)
  • Eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) 
  • Swamp cottonwood (Populus heterophylla)
  • Black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa)

Secondly, there is the poplar of the Liriodendron genus: L. tulipifera species. Botanically speaking, it is not a true poplar. However, most of the poplar wood sold in the US comes from this tree species. Common names for the timber include yellow poplar, tulip poplar, or American tulipwood

In this article, we will cover all poplar woods in the loosest term. You will find examples from different poplar species as illustrations for the generic points. There are also articles on our site covering the most significant poplar woods like tulipwood or aspen that you can check out. 

How Sustainably Does Poplar Wood Grow

Poplar trees’ sustainability lies in the potential for carbon sequestration, the fast-growing rates, and the amount of wood available. 

  • Carbon sequestration: As poplar trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink during their lifespan.

    As a carbon sink, poplar trees pull a lot of greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. And they can store a lot as they grow big and tall – some of the biggest hardwood trees in North America. 

    For example, American eastern cottonwood trees can reach 8 feet in diameter. Western balsam poplar is another large-sized poplar species: these trees can grow as tall as 195 feet. 
  • High availability: Poplar woods are highly available because these species distribute widely and abundantly in the US. Besides, these trees grow large and tall, providing plenty of timber. 

    The forests in North America are abundant with poplar trees (true and all). Yellow poplar (or American tulipwood) alone accounts for 7.7% of the US hardwood growing stock. Aspen trees are also distributed widely in great numbers across the US forests. 

    On top of a high population, poplar trees grow rapidly to significant sizes. A poplar tree can have an annual height increase of 3 to 5 feet in ideal conditions. In comparison, white oak trees add an average of 1 foot per year. It is 2 feet for fast-growing maple species. 

Where Is Poplar Wood Usually Grown

Poplar trees are native to the Northern Hemisphere. 

Here are some important species that grow natively in the US:

  • Balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera)
  • Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides)
  • American eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides)
  • Yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) 

Poplar species grow abundantly across the US, adapting to different growing conditions. For example, quaking aspen spans a wide range of 47 degrees of latitude (equal to half the distance from the equator to the North Pole) and 110 degrees of longitude (nine time zones). In general, aspen trees grow further north and higher up the mountain than other species in the Populus genus, including black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa). 

Harvesting poplar wood is generally sustainable because these trees grow fast. However, it is still important not to forget their role in supporting wildlife and the potential disruptions caused by cutting them down in unsustainable ways. 

Harvesting wood in natural forests, especially old-growth forests, can result in loss of biodiversity regarding tree species and wild animals that feed and shelter there. 

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 poplar trees also disrupts the forests’ wild animals, which depend on the forest for food and shelter. 

For example, Fremont cottonwood is one of the most important plant species to the US western wildlife. The reason is that these trees are dominant in riparian areas, some of which are the most productive wildlife habitats. 

Fremont cottonwood trees provide food for rabbits, deer, elk, moose (shoots and stems), and beavers (bark). Beavers also use branches from these trees for making dams and lodges. The living cottonwood trees are nesting sites for raptors. Conversely, the dying ones provide cavities for 40 animal species for nesting or roosting. Hibernating bears and sometimes bats use hollowed trees.

Illegal logging in the US is unfortunately not non-existent. 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 poplar woods at the end of this article. 

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 Poplar Wood

Turning poplar wood into furniture or decorative household items can have a relatively low carbon footprint. Wood waste can be 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 poplar furniture involves 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 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. 

Poplar woods are relatively fast-drying hardwoods. 

According to the US Forest Service, air-drying green 1-inch lumber of yellow poplar takes 40 to 150 days. The minimum drying times for aspen and cottonwood are longer. Still, the maximum time for those species is not over 150 days. 

In comparison, it takes 70 to 200 days to air dry green 1-inch lumber of northern red oak to a 20% moisture content. Black walnut takes similarly long, while northern white oak takes even longer (80 to 250 days). 

Consequently, the carbon footprint of the drying step for 1m3 of poplar lumber, 4/4 (1 inch) thick, is relatively low. 

According to the life-cycle assessment tool of the American Hardwood Export Council, carbon emissions of drying some poplar woods (1m3, 1-inch thickness) are as follow: 

  • Yellow poplar (American tulipwood): 25.6 kg CO2-eq
  • Aspen: 38.5 kg CO2-eq
  • Cottonwood: 34.2 CO2-eq

Such carbon emissions are lower than many other American hardwoods, including white oak (98.3 kg CO2-eq), red oak (89.7CO2-eq), hickory, black cherry, and willow (42.7 kg CO2-eq). 

A high proportion of energy (to power sawing machines and kilns) can come from renewable sources, including solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass. At least 90% of all thermal energy used for kiln drying in the US hardwood sector is derived from biomass (instead of fossil fuels). The use of renewable energy reduces the carbon footprint of this step. 

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Poplar Wood

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

As poplar trees are distributed widely in the US, a piece of furniture made with poplar wood would have a lower carbon footprint than imported wood like mahogany, teak, rosewood or ipe, providing they are both sold in the US. 

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. 

Take aspen as an example of poplar wood: transporting 1m3 of aspen lumber, 4/4 (1 inch) thick from the forest to the kiln results in 45.2 kg CO2-eq, and from the kiln to the customer in Western Europe 169 kg CO2-eq. Transporting carbon footprint (in this scenario) is more than five times higher than the drying step in manufacturing. 

According to a life-cycle assessment by PE International AG, the carbon footprints of some poplar woods (cradle-to-gate) are as follows: 

  • Yellow Poplar (American tulipwood): 270 kg CO2-eq
  • Aspen: 325 kg CO2-eq
  • Cottonwood: 373 kg CO2-eq

Poplar woods have relatively low carbon footprints compared with the other 16 hardwoods assessed in the same report. Heavy woods from slow-growing trees have much higher carbon footprints. For example: 

In fact, yellow poplar is the wood with the lowest carbon footprint in the report. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Poplar Wood

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

Poplar woods are generally soft timber with low Janka hardness (the indicator for timber’s hardness and density). For example, the Janka hardness for yellow poplar and balsam poplar are  540 lbf and 300 lbf. In comparison, oak has a 1,350 lbf Janka hardness. Thus, poplar woods (unlike oak) are not suitable for making furniture that will carry heavy weights.

However, under proper care and adequate usage, items made with poplar woods can still last for a long time. For example, once protected with the right paint, aspen furniture has been reported to last more than a couple of decades.

When poplar 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 Poplar Wood

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

There are a few scenarios for wood products – furniture and household items- 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.
  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 an aspen door can be burned for biomass energy displacing coal or natural gas in generating electricity

With smaller household items, like furniture inlays or toys, 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. 

According to the life-cycle assessment done by the American Hardwood Export Council, the overall carbon emissions of poplar woods, including aspen, cottonwood, and yellow poplar, are all negative, largely thanks to the enormous carbon uptake during the forestry stage. 

How Can You Buy Poplar 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 poplar 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 furniture and household items made with poplar wood as long as the material comes from sustainably managed forests. However, because poplar species are widely distributed, make sure you opt for the one with the shortest transportation distance. And, as a rule for most consumer products, use any poplar 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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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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