Recycled – Plantations – Native Forests?
There is plenty of debate around about what is the right timber to use in order to achieve a “sustainable” or “environmentally friendly” tag. So what is right?
While plenty of people will tell you that they know “right from wrong” and appear to be able to see things in black and white, to me, there is still plenty of grey.
Just like there are areas of forests that should not be cut down, there are also old buildings around that should not be demolished and have components turned into recycled timber. The decision of what is to be made from a 150 year old recycled beam or column (that was originally cut or hewn from an old growth forest) also has an environmental impact. Turn it into wide board flooring and you are probably looking at cutting, machining and docking wastage of around 50% and total additional energy inputs that can be as high or higher than production of “new” timber.
In a broad sense it’s hard to define recycled timber as being sustainable because of this law of diminishing returns and while it is important, its significance is minute in a world with an expanding need for housing and construction.
There are claims that the plantation growing of trees is the only sustainable way of producing timber.
In practice however, plantation systems have a number of factors that detract from what is normally accepted as being “environmentally friendly” and “sustainable”. These factors include the high use of chemical weedicides, pesticides and fertilizers and the widespread establishment of monocultures or forests that include only one species of non-native and non-endemic plants.
An ideal plantation system would be similar to an organic agricultural system that is based on natural principles and incorporates a number of local species. While these systems do exist they form an insignificant part of the current output from plantations in Australia which currently consists almost entirely of softwood and non durable hardwoods (ie. species like Tasmanian Blue Gum or Mountain Ash).
The failure of the plantation industry to produce durable timbers leads to further problems. Non durable plantation species means that when used externally, these timbers have to be treated to prevent rot. The current common treatment for pine involves the use of copper, chrome and arsenic (CCA), a chemical combination that is causing increased concerns for health regulators in a growing number of countries around the world.
While there may be reasons or justification for using these treatments, to me it is difficult to place them in the “environmentally friendly” or “sustainable” category.
The plantation industry in Australia has been driven by the pulpwood industry and has failed to establish a viable resource for the hardwood sawmilling and value adding industries. While harvesting native forests is the most contentious of the mass timber production systems, it is certainly the most organic in the traditional sense with little use of outside chemicals and comparatively low energy inputs.
The question remains however, is harvesting native forests sustainable?
Radial Timber Australia supports a timber industry that is based firmly on sustainable yields and that protects the biodiversity of our native forests. We do see that there is much room for improvement in current timber harvesting practices and would like to source increasing percentages of our logs from selective harvesting operations.
In Europe and North America, native forests have sustained harvests over periods of thousands of years. To agree that native forests are able to be harvested means that there has to be an acceptance of change within the Australian Timber Industry. With sound management practices and these changes, selective harvesting may still be the most sound option with least overall environmental impacts.
All timber harvesting, whether in plantations or native forest, causes damage and has impact on associated flora and fauna.
Our company sources most of its logs from state-owned regrowth native forests. While there is a range of reasons why it is difficult or impossible for us to shift to a plantation resource at this stage or in the near future, on balance we do not see that this shift would have significant environmental advantages. We see the best way forward as working to improve current practices in an industry that is valuable socially, economically and environmentally.
What I have written is a summary of my views and experiences relating to the environment and timber production. The terms “sustainable” and “environmentally friendly” raise complicated issues and it is my feeling that participants from both sides of the debate need to take a closer look at aspects of the industry that often appear expediently ignored.