How Sustainable Is Tulipwood? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is Tulipwood? Here Are the Facts

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Quynh Nguyen

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Tulipwood comes from tulip trees – the tallest hardwood trees in North America. This tree species provides a large quantity of timber, thanks to the trees’ size and perfect straight trunk. Its high availability means that tulipwood is more sustainable than wood from rare tree species. However, as the tulip trees support many animals, birds, and insects, cutting down the trees hurts wildlife. So we had to ask: How sustainable is it to buy products made out of tulipwood? 

Tulipwood is sustainable thanks to the carbon sequestration of tulip trees and carbon storage in tulipwood products. Burning wood waste at the end of a product life creates energy, substituting fossil fuel. Because of its abundance, it’s possible to harvest the wood without harming the forests.

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

Here’s How Sustainable Tulipwood Is

Tulipwood is a sustainable material because of the tulip trees’ carbon sequestration and the carbon offset value at the end of any products made with tulipwood. 

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 better understand the sustainability of tulipwood, we assess the life-cycle of projects like flooring or 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 tulipwood. Where it is relevant, we also use data from cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of tulipwoodEach stage’s sustainability
Growing of tulipwoodGrowing tulip trees for timber is sustainable thanks to the carbon sequestration potential and the fast-replacement rate. 
Manufacturing of tulipwoodTurning tulipwood 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 tulipwoodTransporting is a relatively carbon-intensive stage in the life cycle of tulipwood furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores. As tulip trees are distributed widely in the US, a piece of tulipwood furniture would have a lower carbon footprint than that made from imported woods.
Usage of tulipwoodUsing tulipwood furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 
End-of-life of tulipwoodThe end-of-life stage for tulipwood furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy. 

Overall, we can say that tulipwood is sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a table 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 Tulipwood

Growing tulip trees for timber is sustainable thanks to the carbon sequestration potential and the fast-replacement rate. 

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

Tulipwood comes from a fast-growing hardwood tree of the Liriodendron genus in the Magnoliaceae family. The tree has the name “tulip tree” because of its tulip-shaped flowers. This tree species is also referred to as “Yellow Poplar” or “Tulip Poplar,” though it is not to be mistaken as being related to the Populus genus.  

The average growth rate of tulip trees is more than 2 feet a year. That is two times faster than the average growth rate of, for example, white oak trees and as much as the growth rate of the fast-growing maple and ash species. 

How Sustainably Does Tulipwood Grow

Tulip trees’ sustainability lies in the potential for carbon sequestration and the fast replacement rate. 

  • Carbon Sequestration: As tulip trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink during their long lifespan – an average of 200 to 250 years with a recorded age of more than 390 years. This means that they are taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. And they can store a lot as they grow up to 160 feet in height and 8 feet in trunk diameter. Tulip trees are, in fact, one of the largest trees native to the eastern USA. The record for tulip trees’ height is 191 feet
  • Fast replacement rate: The trees’ abundance and rapid growth are two factors contributing to tulipwood’s replacement rate. Tulip trees are one of the most plentiful in the eastern USA, with a growing stock of 1.12 billion cubic meters (accounting for 7.7% of total US hardwood growing stock). Every year, the US forests have 21.8 million cubic meters of tulipwood surplus after harvest. Currently, it takes 1.82 seconds for the US forests to replace 1 cubic meter of tulipwood. Because tulipwood is highly available, it is more sustainable than rarer hardwood species like black walnut or ash.

Where Is Tulipwood Usually Grown

Tulip or yellow poplar trees grow exclusively in North America. They grow in abundance throughout mixed hardwood forests of the US East. Tulip trees can be found as far north as the southern parts of New England and as far south as Florida. 

Despite its abundance, there is a downside to cutting down tulip trees, especially when that is done illegally or unsustainably. Harvesting 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 black tulip trees also disrupts the forests’ wild animals, which depend on the forest for food and shelter. Tulip or yellow poplar trees provide food in many forms for animals, big and small. White-tail deer and rabbits eat young seedlings. Ruby-throated hummingbirds and insects feed on the nectar of its abundant flowers. Tulip tree seeds, which last into winter, are a source of food for birds, mice, and squirrels.  

Illegal logging in the US is unfortunately not non-existent. 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 tulipwood 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 Tulipwood

Turning tulipwood 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 tulipwood furniture involves cutting down trees and turning them into lumber in a sawmill. The carbon emissions here come from electricity usage. It is easy to cut and saw tulipwood logs because the wood has a moderate density. It is also relatively soft with a Janka hardness of 540 lbf, much lower than that of other common hardwoods like white oak (1350 lbf) or hard maple (1450lbf). 

The next step is to dry lumber before turning 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.

Tulipwood is a relatively fast-drying hardwood. In an assessment from the US Forest Services, 4/4 inch tulipwood boards take about 4 to 5 days to dry. Red oak boards of the same size would require a much longer time: 3 to 4 weeks. 

The carbon footprint of the drying step for a 4/4 inch log is 25.6 kg CO2-eq, according to a life cycle assessment tool of the American Hardwood Export Council. That is a much lower carbon footprint when being compared with other American hardwoods like white oak (98.3 kg CO2), red oak (89.7 kg CO2), or black cherry (42.7 kg CO2). 

A high proportion of energy can come from burning wood waste. At least 90% of all thermal energy used for kiln drying in the US hardwood sector is derived from biomass (instead of fossil fuels). 

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Tulipwood

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

As tulip trees are distributed widely in the US, a piece of tulipwood furniture would have a lower carbon footprint than that made from imported woods like mahogany or teak, 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. A calculation from PE International AG shows that transporting activities, including from forest to kiln and from kiln to customer, have roughly the same carbon footprint as the combination of forestry, sawmill, and drying activities. In other words, transportation accounts for half of the carbon footprint of tulipwood production in a cradle-to-gate assessment. 

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. 

In comparison with some other American hardwoods, the growing, manufacturing, and transporting of tulipwood have a carbon footprint amongst the lowest. When PE International AG assessed the environmental impacts of 19 American hardwoods through stages from cradle to gate plus transport, they found a carbon footprint of 270 kg CO2-eq for one cubic meter of kiln-dried tulipwood logs. That is lower than the carbon footprint of all other hardwoods in the study, including black cherry (301 kg CO2), hard maple (394 kg CO2), ash (407 kg CO2), and white oak (559 kg CO2). 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Tulipwood

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

Tulipwood’s heartwood is rated as varying from moderately durable to non-durable. The wood is not resistant to decay. Furniture made with tulipwood can be expected to last from 5 to 10 years. However, research showed that the wood can last up to 16 years outdoors with minor decay with the right finishes.  

When tulipwood 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 Tulipwood

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

There are a few scenarios for wood products – furniture, flooring, and musical instruments- 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 a tulip cabinet 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 Tulipwood 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 tulipwood 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 easily find and buy sustainable furniture made from tulipwood because the wood is widely available in large quantities. However, always ensure that your tulipwood furniture comes from sustainably managed forests. And, to make it even more sustainable, use any tulipwood 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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