7 Most Sustainable Woods for Outdoor Furniture: A Life-Cycle Analysis

7 Most Sustainable Woods for Outdoor Furniture: A Life-Cycle Analysis

By
Quynh Nguyen

Read Time:18 Minutes

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Woods generally are a sustainable material thanks to their carbon sequestration. However, their environmental impacts vary based on the specific trees and the biodiversity of their native forests, traveling distance and method of transportation as well as how sustainably they are grown and logged. So we have to ask: Which woods are the most sustainable for outdoor furniture?

The most sustainable woods for outdoor furniture are redwood, cypress, cedar, douglas fir, black locust, white oak, and bamboo. These generally have a high carbon sequestration at a low total carbon footprint, are fast and sustainably replenishing, and are naturally durable and decay resistant.

In this article, we will walk you through the life-cycle of the seven most sustainable woods used in outdoor furniture. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. We will also investigate a few tropical hardwoods that could be sustainable options for exterior applications,  providing responsible harvesting. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable timber.

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of All Types of Wood for Outdoor Furniture

In general, wood is a sustainable material because of timber trees’ carbon sequestration potential and the carbon offset value at the end of the wood product’s life-cycle. 

“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

However, some woods are better than others for furniture that lasts outdoors. One way of assessing the sustainability of wooden exterior furniture is to go through their life-cycles and examine each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s look at the LCA of some of the most sustainable woods!

In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of woods used for outdoor furniture. Where it is relevant, we also use data from cradle-to-gate assessments. 

These five stages of the life-cycle of outdoor furniture made with wood are as follows:

  1. Growing of the wood
  2. Manufacturing of the wooden outdoor furniture 
  3. Transportation of the wooden outdoor furniture
  4. Usage of the wooden outdoor furniture
  5. End-of-life of the wooden outdoor furniture

The life-cycle assessment typically covers some or all of the following environmental impacts:

  • Global warming potential 
  • Primary energy demand from resources 
  • Acidification potential
  • Freshwater eutrophication potential 
  • Marine eutrophication potential 
  • Photochemical ozone creation potential 
  • Resource depletion

The global warming potential impact reflects the risk of accelerating climate change through the emissions of greenhouse gases. It focuses on CO2 and other greenhouse gasses (CH4, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons) released throughout a product’s life-cycle. This impact is measured in kg of CO2 equivalent emitted per unit of a product – the carbon footprint

“Carbon footprint: the amount of greenhouse gases and specifically carbon dioxide emitted by something (such as a person’s activities or a product’s manufacture and transport) during a given period”

Merriam Webster

Deciding factors for a high or low carbon footprint in wooden furniture are: 

  • Drying requirements of timber
  • Distribution of timber trees 

Because of the tree’s carbon sequestration potential, the carbon emitted during various stages of wooden furniture’s life-cycle can be compensated by the carbon captured and stored. The deciding factors for high or low carbon storage are: 

  • Tree sizes 
  • Tree growth rate 
  • Natural durability 

In this article, we cover seven woods that are the most sustainable material for outdoor furniture regarding their global warming potential. We will also look into how to make a more sustainable choice when using tropical hardwoods for your patio or garden sets. We’ll zoom into species’ growth rate, tree size, distribution, woodworking properties, and natural durability, as these are the deciding reasons behind the carbon balance of wooden furniture. 

These Are the 7 Most Sustainable Types of Wood for Outdoor Furniture

These woods have, to some extent, natural resistance to rot and decay, making them durable materials for exterior furniture. Most of them also have low carbon emissions on a life-cycle assessment basis. 

Type of woodOverall sustainability
RedwoodWhat makes it so sustainable: Redwood lumber has a negative carbon balance of – 695.03 kg CO2-eq (per 1m3) thanks to its high carbon sequestration during the forestry stage and the favorable property toward air-drying. 

Additionally: Outdoor furniture made with (untreated) redwood can last up to three decades because redwood has extremely high natural resistance to rot, weather, insects, and fungi.
Cypress wood What makes it so sustainable: Cypress has excellent strength and decay resistance. And because of its natural durability, the wood is seldom treated with preservatives, meaning it can be fully recycled or burned for bioenergy.

Additionally: Cypress has a relatively low transporting carbon footprint thanks to its lightweight.
Western red cedar wood What makes it so sustainable: Western red cedar is lightweight yet durable against weathering elements. Cedar furniture doesn’t require treatment for outdoor usage, meaning it can be fully recycled or burned for bioenergy.

Additionally: This enormous tree species grows in abundance in the US forests, providing a sustained timber stock.  
Douglas fir woodWhat makes it so sustainable: Douglas fir trees are abundant in North America (~20% of all softwood reserves) and they grow relatively fast and extremely tall, quickly replenishing any timber cut.

Additionally: Douglas fir is one of the strongest Western softwood species. And thanks to this species’ natural resistance to decay, even untreated garden furniture can last up to 15 years.
Black Locust wood What makes it so sustainable: Black Locust trees grow fast and can regrow even more faster after cutting, replenishing timber cut for woodworking. Also, exterior furniture made with black locust can last for many decades, extending its role as carbon storage. 

Additionally: Black Locus is a domestic hardwood, and thus, it has a lower transporting carbon footprint than imported tropical hardwoods. 
White oak wood What makes it so sustainable: White oak trees contain special cells that make them water-tight. High water resistance and superior strength mean untreated white oak furniture can last for a long time outside, keeping its carbon storage role. Their end-of-life is also sustainable because it is possible to recycle or burn the untreated wood for bioenergy.  

Additionally: White oak trees grow in abundance in the US forests, providing a sustained timber stock.   
Bamboo “wood”What makes it so sustainable: Bamboo plants have a quick growth rate, short time to maturity (compared to timber trees), and an ability to self-propagate. Mature bamboo can be harvested sustainably after three to five years of planting. Better yet, if the roots are left undisturbed, the plant can regrow very quickly without needing fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide.

Additionally: Bamboo stronger than steel and more resistant to water, infestation, rotting, and warping than hardwoods. Exterior furniture made with bamboo doesn’t shrink or swell due to temperature and humidity changes. Thus, outdoor furniture made with bamboo can last for many years. Also, thanks to the lightweight, bamboo furniture can be moved under cover during extreme weather, which would help extend its lifespan.

Overall, these woods are highly sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of wooden outdoor furniture depends on many factors, especially the distance and mode of transportation. Let’s dive deeper into each wood and the stages of its life-cycle and find out how it can be more sustainable.

1

Redwood: Durable Outdoor Material from Fast-Growing Giant Conifers 

One cubic meter of redwood has a carbon footprint of only 37.97 kg CO2-eq (cradle-to-gate). The same volume of redwood lumber stores 697 kg CO2-eq. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of redwood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of redwood: Coastal redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens) grow very fast (3 feet per year) and exceptionally tall (the tallest living trees on earth). They act as a carbon sink during their long lifespan of over 2,000 years, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. The species’ ability to regrow from sprouts is significant in reforesting ancient woodlands while replenishing the timber source. 
  • Manufacturing of redwood: Redwood is exceptionally stable. Thus, if the local weather is favorable, redwood lumber can be air-dried completely or partially (before kiln-drying). As kiln-drying is usually the most energy-intensive process for wood products, air-drying helps lower the carbon emission during manufacturing. 
  • Transportation of redwood: Redwood trees grow extensively along the West Coast of the US. Thus, the transporting carbon footprint to states such as California, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, or Arizona is relatively low. Less energy is expended in shipping redwood around these regions compared to importing tropical hardwoods, such as acacia or teak
  • Usage of redwood: This timber is extremely resistant to rot, weather, insects, and fungi as it is high in tannin and does not produce resin or pitch. Untreated redwood patio furniture could last up from 10 to 30 years. That is up to three decades of carbon storage. 
  • End-of-life of redwood: Redwood furniture can either be up-cycled to lengthen the carbon storage role or burned biomass energy displacing coal or natural gas to generate electricity. Both scenarios are sustainable. 

Redwood is a highly sustainable material when it comes to outdoor furniture. The tall trees sequester significant amounts of carbon. At the same time, redwood furniture keeps the captured carbon out of the atmosphere for the many years they last. 

Besides, manufacturing redwood furniture has relatively low carbon emissions thanks to little need for using a kiln to dry this dimensionally stable timber. (Kiln-drying is usually the most energy-intensive process for wood products.) 

2

Cypress Wood: Durable Furniture Wood from Native Conifer Species

Bald cypress is a unique conifer species that loses its needles during the winter (hence the name “bald”). These trees grow in wet, swampy areas throughout southeastern states. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of cypress wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of cypress wood: Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) trees have a high carbon sequestration potential thanks to their large sizes: 150 feet in height and 12 feet in diameter (carbon accounts for nearly 50% of the dry weight of a tree). As cypress trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink during their long lifespan of around 1,200 years, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. 
  • Manufacturing of cypress wood: Bald cypress is a slow-drying wood, partly due to the high moisture content of this swamp species. (The air-drying time from green to 20% moisture content is 100 to 300 hours.) It signifies a high manufacturing footprint because kiln-drying is the most carbon-intensive step in lumber production.   
  • Transportation of cypress wood: Because bald cypress timber is light and locally available throughout the US, its transportation footprint is lower than imported woods like ipe or acacia.  
  • Usage of cypress wood: Cypress wood is rot and insect resistant, attributable to its natural oils. Outdoor benches made with old-growth cypress can last 40 years with little maintenance. Even cypress lumber from younger trees has a lifespan of around 20 years outdoors. 
  • End-of-life of cypress wood: Because of its natural durability, the wood is seldom treated with preservatives, even for outdoor usage. Thus, cypress furniture can be fully recycled or burned for bioenergy. Both scenarios are sustainable. 

Bald cypress is a sustainable material for outdoor furniture because of its excellent insect and rot resistance. It is strong for a softwood species with relatively low density. Patio sets or garden benches can last for decades, keeping the carbon stored from being released back into the atmosphere. 

3

Western Red Cedar Wood: Light Wood With Low Transporting Carbon Footprint 

Western red cedar is timber from the tall and big conifers that grow in abundance in the US – the giant arborvitae. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of western red cedar wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of cedar wood: Western red cedar (Thuja plicata) trees have a high carbon sequestration potential thanks to their large sizes (200 feet in height and 4 feet in diameter) and their long lifespan (over 1,000 years). In North America, western red cedar trees are abundant and sustainably managed. Thus, timber harvesting doesn’t harm the forests.
  • Manufacturing of cedar wood: Western red cedar is dimensionally stable; thus, less energy is wasted on shrinkage, checking, and warping during kiln-drying. 
  • Transportation of cedar wood: Western red cedar trees are abundant in the Northwest US. In states such as Washington, Oregon, or Idaho, it’s possible to source western red cedar locally, lowering the transportation footprint. Also, transporting this lightweight timber is more fuel-efficient than hauling heavy hardwoods. Consequently, transporting carbon footprint per unit is smaller. 
  • Usage of cedar wood: Western red cedar contains a lot of naturally-occurring oils which defend the wood against rot and other diseases. The timber also has a low tendency to warping when temperature and humidity change, keeping your outdoor furniture in good shape for years. Thus, furniture made with untreated western red cedar can last up to 30 years.
  • End-of-life of cedar wood: The end-of-life stage for cedar furniture is sustainable because the wood can be fully reused or burned as bioenergy. 

Western red cedar is a sustainable material for outdoor wooden furniture because it is  lightweight yet durable against weathering elements. Also, this enormous tree species grows in abundance in the US forests, providing a sustained timber stock.  

4

Douglas Fir: Strong Exterior Material From Widely Distributed Softwood Species

Douglas fir wood comes from one of the tallest tree species on the North American continent. It is also one of the best carbon capture trees on the planet, sequestering 17 pounds of carbon each and every year. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of Douglas fir wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of Douglas fir wood: The high carbon sequestration potential makes growing Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) for timber sustainable. 5 acres of Douglas fir trees capture 127 tons a year, offsetting the carbon footprint of over 1,000 people. In old-growth forests, these tree species can grow as tall as 250 feet and as big as six feet in diameter. The record for Douglas fir height is 330 feet, more than double the height of a tall black walnut tree. 
  • Manufacturing of Douglas fir wood: Douglas fir lumber can be air-dried from green to a 20% moisture content. The drying time varies significantly depending on the season and location (20 to 200 hours). Using a kiln takes about 32 hours to dry 1/8 inch-sized Douglas fir lumber from green to 15% moisture content. 
  • Transportation of Douglas fir wood: Douglas fir trees are distributed widely in the US: they populate the largest section of western states. Consequently, transporting carbon footprint is relatively low, especially if compared with rarer US woods commonly used for outdoor furniture like cypress. 
  • Usage of Douglas fir wood: Douglas fir is one of the strongest Western softwood species (twice as hard as cedar per square meter). Its naturally-occurring resin provides a strong protection against decay and fungal attack, making it a long-lasting exterior material. Outdoor patio sets or benches made with untreated Douglas fir can last up to 15 years
  • End-of-life of Douglas fir wood: The end-of-life stage for untreated Douglas fir furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy.

Douglas fir makes beautiful and long-lasting furniture. These fast-growing, towering conifers account for a fifth of North America’s total softwood reserves – a healthy and sustainably managed stock for timber harvesting. It is a particularly hard softwood, ideal for furniture subject to more weights and dents. 

5

Black Locust Wood: Fast-Growing Hardwood Species for Durable Outdoor Furniture 

Black locust is one of the most adaptable and easy-to-grow trees. Though it is grown more as an ornamental than a commercial timber tree, its wood is particularly durable for outdoor usage. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of black locust wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of black locust wood: Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is a fast-growing hardwood species with an annual growth rate of 2 feet. Seedlings grow more rapidly, up to 4 feet per year (and post-cutting sprouts grow even faster). Because the forests can replenish relatively quickly, timber harvesting is fairly sustainable. 
  • Manufacturing of black locust wood: Black locust dries very slowly. That signifies a high manufacturing footprint because kiln-drying is the most carbon-intensive step in lumber production. 
  • Transportation of black locust wood: Because black locust is a domestic wood, its transporting footprint is lower than imported hardwoods like mahogany or meranti
  • Usage of black locust wood: Black locust is very strong. Its strength exceeds teak, most oak species, and is comparable to hickory. Besides, it’s very durable with good weathering characteristics thanks to high rot resistance and stability (once dried). Thus, outdoor tables or benches made with black locust have a very long lifespan (50 years and more). 
  • End-of-life of black locust wood: TThanks to its natural rot resistance, there is no need to use chemical treatment for black locust for outdoor use. Thus, at the end of life, black locust furniture can be fully recycled, upcycled, or burned as bioenergy. 

Black locust is one of the most sustainable hardwoods for outdoor furniture, thanks to its fast-growing nature and high outdoor performance. This tree species grows fast and can regrow even more rapidly after cutting, replenishing timber cut for woodworking. Exterior furniture made with black locust can last for many decades, extending its role as carbon storage. 

6

White Oak Wood: Durable Hardwood From Highly Sustainably Managed Stock 

One cubic meter of white oak has a carbon footprint of 556 kg CO2-eq, higher than all other commonly used US hardwoods. However, the same volume of white oak trees uptake 3200 kg CO2-eq, resulting in a highly environmentally favorable carbon balance. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of white oak wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of white oak wood: The white oak (Quercus rubra) accounts for 15.5 % of US hardwood growing stock. That is, for example, more than three times the growing volume of hickory. Because of the large population of white oak trees, it takes merely 1.57 seconds for the US forests to grow 1mÂł of white oak. Though this hardwood species has a slow growth rate, such a growing stock allows harvesting timber without harming the forests. 
  • Manufacturing of white oak wood: Kiln drying white oak has a carbon footprint of 98.3 kg CO2-eq (one cubic meter of 1-inch white oak logs). As white oak species dry slowly, they tend to have a high manufacturing footprint because kiln-drying is the most carbon-intensive step in lumber production.
  • Transportation of white oak wood: Because white oak trees are widely distributed throughout most eastern states, it is possible to source this timber at relatively short distances. A white oak garden table would have a lower transportation footprint than, for example, a teak table imported from South East Asia. 
  • Usage of white oak wood: White oak is generally water-tight thanks to the presence of tyloses in its “pores.” These cells prevent white oak wood from wicking up water and rotting. Tyloses also help protect the timber from insects. Thus, white oak is a highly durable exterior material. Its heartwood has a similar outdoor lifespan as western cedar (up to three decades). 
  • End-of-life of white oak wood: The end-of-life stage for white oak furniture is sustainable when the wood can be reused for another woodworking project or burned as bioenergy. 

White oak is one of the most sustainable woods for outdoor furniture, thanks to its natural durability and the high volume of white oak trees. It is a strong and stable wood with high water resistance. Thus, your furniture can be left outside without cover through rain and snow and still last for decades. 

7

Bamboo “Wood”: Light Material from Rapid-Growing Species 

Bamboo “wood” is highly sustainable because the bamboo grass plant grows and regrows rapidly, producing 35% more oxygen than a tree with an equivalent mass. Though bamboo is technically not wood (not from a tree), this material has been utilized in many woodworking projects because of its strength and many other beneficial properties. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of bamboo wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of bamboo wood: Growing bamboo for “wood” is sustainable because of its quick growth rate, the short time to maturity (compared to wood), and its ability to self-propagate. Mature bamboo can be harvested sustainably after three to five years of planting. Better yet, if the roots are left undisturbed, the plant can regrow very quickly without any other inputs but water and sunlight. Last but not least, one acre of bamboo can absorb around 10,000 lbs of carbon dioxide per year.
  • Manufacturing of bamboo wood: The process to transform bamboo into furniture can have a relatively low carbon footprint and involve little chemical usage. Typically, the method comprises cutting, stripping, and sanding bamboo culms, boiling, decarbonizing, and drying before assembling the final product. 
  • Transportation of bamboo wood: The main sources of valuable commercial bamboo are China and Latin America. It means long traveling distances from forestry to customers in the US. However, bamboo is lightweight. One truck can carry much more bamboo panels than, for example, teak logs. The weight tends to compensate for the distance, leaving bamboo one of the sustainable choices for outdoor furniture. 
  • Usage of bamboo wood: Bamboo is a strong and light material. It’s stronger than steel and more resistant to water, infestation, rotting, and warping than hardwoods. Exterior furniture made with bamboo doesn’t shrink or swell due to temperature and humidity changes. Thus, outdoor furniture made with bamboo can last for many years. Also, bamboo furniture is light and, therefore, can be moved under cover during extreme weather, which would help extend its lifespan.
  • End-of-life of bamboo wood: Untreated bamboo furniture can be fully recycled or burned as bioenergy. Both scenarios are sustainable. 

Bamboo is a sustainable material for outdoor furniture because it has comparable properties to hardwoods without the disadvantages of slow growth cycles. These grass species reach maturity within a few years. They can regrow after being cut down without needing fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide. 

Tropical Hardwoods for Outdoor Furniture: A Few Words on Their Sustainability

Some tropical hardwoods make long-lasting (and stunning-looking) outdoor furniture thanks to their natural resistance to rot, decay, and insect attacks. Some much-loved tropical hardwoods for exterior usage include:

Though the durability of these hardwoods is a big contribution to their overall sustainability as a material for outdoor furniture, there are two other deciding factors: 

  • Eco costs of logging 
  • Transportation distances  

Firstly, it is possible to source tropical hardwoods that are sustainably harvested. There are certificates such as FSC and PECC, which guarantee sustainable forestry management. In that case, the eco costs of such hardwoods can be lower than woods that might require treatment to stay a similarly long time outdoors (such as pine or spruce). 

Providing that you can find FSC-certified tropical hardwoods, the distances and the mode of transport still affect the total carbon emissions. 

The transporting footprint of these hardwoods is undoubtedly higher than woods sourced locally in the US. 

However, the transporting emissions are not the same for all woods from the tropic. For example, cumaru from Northern Brazil would have traveled much shorter distances to the US than Southeast Asian teak. 

In brief, tropical hardwoods are not as environmentally friendly as untreated softwoods available locally within the US. 

However, suppose you want naturally durable, beautiful tropical hardwoods for your outdoor furniture. In that case, you should search for the most sustainable options in this group:

  1. You should watch out that they have a sustainable certificate, such as FSC or PECC. You need to avoid timber associated with deforestation in tropical rainforests – the world’s most biodiverse places.
  2. Traveling distance matters. For example, teak timber can come from as far as SouthEast Asia, but it doesn’t have to be. There are teak plantations in Brazil, which is much closer to the US. You should weigh all your options and go for the woods that travel the least.
  3. It would also be an environmentally friendly option if you can find salvaged or recycled tropical hardwoods. 

How Can You Buy More Sustainable Wood

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 ash 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

Improperly managed logging (including illegal activities) can cause many problems for forest equality and diversity. 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. 

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

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 build sustainable outdoor furniture made with woods as long as the material comes from sustainably managed forests. These seven woods – redwood, bald cypress, western red cedar, douglas fir, black locust, white oak, and bamboo – are among the most sustainable options. The reasons are the relatively low carbon emissions during harvesting, manufacturing, and transporting and the years and decades that carbon is stored inside these woods. You can make it even more sustainable by using outdoor furniture made with these woods for as long as possible. Then, look into upcycling the material to extend its usage and/or arrange for it to be recycled fully.

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