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Sustainability Matters – the environmental effects of furniture hardwoods

May 6, 2011

North American Hardwoods are among the most plentiful, and well-managed natural resources in the world.  Hardwoods have a finite life cycle and when properly managed, they regenerate.  In fact, there’s more hardwoods now that there were 50 years ago, and the current tree selection and harvesting methods will ensure this is the case for generations to come.

Hardwood trees have another positive impact on our environment. Trees remove CO2 from the air.  As a by-product of photosynthesis a tree releases oxygen for us to breathe, and then the excess carbon is stored within its fibers.  If the tree is harvested and used,  this stored carbon remains in the wood whether it becomes a board, a chair, an heirloom armoire or your grandfather’s clock.  This carbon is sequestered for the useful lifetime of the wood product.  By using hardwoods we actually help to reduce one of the primary elements associated with global warming.

Healthy hardwood forests are net producers of oxygen, thanks to photosynthesis. Growing trees take carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and separate the carbon and oxygen atoms. Trees use the carbon to grow roots, trunk, branches and leaves (a tree uses 1.47 pounds of carbon dioxide to grow a pound of wood) then return the oxygen to the air (giving off 1.07 pounds of oxygen.) This process reduces greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. How much? An acre of trees can remove about four metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year.

So why harvest them? Once a tree stops growing and begins to decay, the process reverses and the tree begins using oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide. However, if the tree is harvested and used, its stored carbon is held within the wood for the usable life of that wood product. It is estimated that each year, more than 175 million tons of carbon are stored in products that we use everyday — tables, chairs, floor to name just a few.

Wood products have a low carbon impact and what is called a low level of embodied energy relative to other building materials. As a raw material, trees use the sun’s energy to grow and develop. And the amount of energy necessary for producing wood products is low compared to other building products made from other materials like steel, aluminum, glass and brick.

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