It’s a question of mindset, really — is all wood debris generated on tree care jobs a waste or resource? Do you dispose of it or take advantage of it? Of course, every situation is different and sometimes the philosophy is driven by financial implications involved. “In part, it’s a game of how we can get rid of the material as quickly as possible, as cheaply as possible,” says Ben Heslep, owner of Old Town Tree and Landscaping in Winchester, Virginia. But, like many tree care professionals, when given the choice, Heslep tries to make sure that wood waste is repurposed somehow. “I like to find a better spot than just taking it to a dump where it will sit forever,” he emphasizes. “We’re not unique, but I think we’re passionate about trying to find uses for the waste instead of just getting rid of it.”
“We’re getting rid of our waste and it’s being repurposed.”
One growing outlet for Old Town Tree and Landscaping has come through an increased demand for loads of natural wood chips from people who are knowledgeable about horticulture. “[The chips] are better for the soil…once that wood decomposes, it turns back into soil. So instead of buying mulch, they’re taking wood chips and using it for their gardens,” Heslep explains. While not necessarily profitable, knowing who might want chips often provides a relatively convenient and productive way to get rid of the material. Heslep tries to ensure the gardeners get good chips, rather than a lot of stringy material. But he cautions that, depending on the tree species they came from, the chips need to sit for a time to reduce acid content.
In some cases, Heslep’s able to drop off larger wood to those who want it for firewood. “A lot of people will call us and ask for just rounds of wood. If it’s close by, we’ll just give them away — we won’t split it for them, but we’ll drop it off,” says Heslep. The property owner just needs to mark a spot where they want the wood dropped. “I like doing that; it’s a symbiotic relationship, where we’re getting rid of our waste and it’s being repurposed.”
When it comes to split firewood, there’s at least a little bit of a profit to be made — Heslep looks for good hardwood. “[We look for] ash in particular because it splits well. Also, red oak, white oak, even cherry and maple — if we get good rounds of these, I’ll take them back to my lot and store them. Then, we’ll split and sell them by the cord as firewood,” Heslep explains. Old Town Tree and Landscaping will deliver and stack the wood for customers, for a fee.
When these outlets aren’t available for lower-grade wood waste, Heslep’s last resort it to bring it to the local wood dump. That doesn’t mean it’s landfilled and forgotten, though. “They reprocess everything in big drum grinders; they grind everything up a couple of times, turn it into mulch, dye it and resell it,” he says. “And some of the chips are sold to power plants for clean energy.” That local wood dump used to be free, but now charges for drop-offs. “But it’s not that bad,” Heslep explains. “My dump bill averages about $150. It’s not a big deal and it helps ensure the longevity of our dumping spot.”
The highest purpose for the best wood is lumber, says Heslep. “If it’s a nice walnut or a veneer-grade poplar or something like that, I have a few woodworkers who come get the logs,” says Heslep. Even if it’s the type of log that might be worth money, he’s happy to give them away so that the wood will go to some better use, like for cabinets or furniture, as long as the woodworker can come and pick it up without damaging the yard where it came from. “So, it has to be the right scenario where they can get a big tractor, loader, trailer or grapple truck onto my site without doing more damage,” he adds.
Heslep has developed a relationship with one particular company, Bent River Woodworks, that picks up quite a bit of wood from him. “They make beautiful, stuff. It’s cool to scroll through their website and think that some of the wood I gave them might have produced a table or piece of furniture,” he says, noting that this relationship is also symbiotic. It means that Heslep doesn’t incur the effort or expense of hauling away or somehow processing large logs. “They get a free piece of wood and it saves us a little time and energy,” he states.
“I’ve been surprised to learn how many small, custom sawmill operations there are just here in the Chicago area.”
This is exactly the type of relationship building that Rich Christianson is hoping to achieve in the Chicago area. He’s the communications director of the Illinois Wood Utilization Team, a group funded by the U.S Forest Service and others with a mission to “encourage the harvesting and use of wood from urban and community trees felled in Illinois.”
Illinois has recently joined forces with neighboring Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri to form the Urban Wood Network, which is also geared toward the utilization of trees from urban forests. “While this isn’t a new concept, it’s one that I think is starting to get more legs,” says Christianson. And tree care companies, he adds, “are on the front lines — they often know of desirable trees that are coming down for whatever reason, whether it’s emerald ash borer, storm damage or utility work — so we’re trying to get them more involved.”
The hope is that tree care contractors will tip off a sawyer in their local area who could, for example, bring out a portable mill to process that tree. Or a woodworker interested in purchasing the log. Not every arborist or tree care company is interested in ensuring that urban wood is put to good use whenever possible, “but a lot of them do,” says Christianson, whose group tries to spread the message. “It’s a lot of missionary work,” he adds.
The first step is just letting those in the industry know that there are many woodworkers, furniture builders and others out there who want good urban wood. “I’ve been surprised myself to learn how many small, custom sawmill operations there are just here in the Chicago area,” says Christianson. Once there’s a recognition that there are outlets for the wood, the next step is to help build relationships, so the tree care company knows who to call in a particular area when they have a certain kind of tree with potential.
Christianson feels that the market for urban wood is growing. He cites not only demand from niche woodworkers wanting to market products made from urban wood, but also national companies such as Starbucks, which has built the interior or more than 100 stores using urban wood. People are increasingly seeing not only the value from saving a tree from going into the landfill, but that there’s sometimes a financial value in the wood itself, he notes. The tree care company might be able to profit by selling certain logs to a woodworker who can make money from selling a product made from reclaimed or urban wood.
“We sell it at the end of the year as seasoned firewood, so we get a little extra money.”
At Woodworks Tree Service in New York’s Hudson Valley, owner Michael Powell is always looking for ways to make the best — and more efficient — use of wood debris. His clients often want wood chips. But if they don’t, he tries to maintain a list of others in the area who would take them. “The last resort is that we have to pay to dump them, so we try to avoid that if we can,” he explains.
Much of the company’s larger wood (too big to fit through the chipper) is brought back to the shop for processing into firewood. As other tree care pros also point out, Powell says there’s a lot of labor and trucking/handling involved with firewood, so it isn’t extremely profitable. But it does generate some revenue. “We sell it at the end of the year as seasoned firewood, so we get a little extra money. And we don’t have to pay to get rid of it, which is a good side-benefit,” he states.
Recently, Woodworks Tree Service has begun doing more milling of large logs. “That’s been tricky, because you have to transport the log, which requires heavy machines. Or you’re bringing the mill to the job site. So, it’s a little harder to get that product produced. But if we can, we’ll do it,” Powell explains. The company recently purchased a jig for a chainsaw that allows it to saw lumber without an actual mill. “That’s been really nice. We don’t have to bring the log anywhere, we can do it right there on the site,” Powell says. The boards are then brought back and sold as lumber. “Lumber is really the top echelon of the continued-use wood product chain,” he says. Powell jokes that he’s not yet large enough to compete with Home Depot on the lumber front, “but it produces some really nice material for artisanal woodworking and things like that.” He’s had success in showcasing and marketing the lumber via social media avenues like Instagram and Facebook.
“You have to find places where you can dump it, you have to find people who will take it.”
Dusty Burmeister, owner of Meister Tree Care in Dixon, Illinois, says that he didn’t have all the answers to dealing with wood waste when he started his company, and still doesn’t, but little by little he’s found productive outlets for it. “You have to find places where you can dump it, you have to find people who will take it,” he says. “We still sometimes go into areas where we don’t have good contacts for reusing the product, but over the last 10 years we’ve made a lot of progress.”
When it comes to chips, Meister Tree Care’s customer list includes many homeowners who want them for mulching around landscapes. The company also has developed a market for firewood. “People are heating with wood a little bit more because of the cost of utilities. Also, people just seem to love a fire,” says Burmeister. “And we’ve made connections with a few people in our area that have sawmills for some of our clear and straight wood that can be turned into board; they get used for anything from framing to fences to artistic décor, benches and tables — we’ve made a ton of things with the wood. And some people have made some really fine furniture out of our walnut, oak and cherry.” He points out that it’s sometimes the wood that’s really disfigured or “featured” wood that ends up being the most beautiful: “When you open some of that stuff up, it just has so much character.”
Burmeister says his mind is constantly running out on the job, pondering different ways that wood material might be used. He’d love to find a way to produce a wood fuel from the chips that could be used in small-scale applications like homes, rather than just in large commercial applications. “It’s a resource,” says Burmeister, “so to just landfill it or burn it frivolously isn’t the best use of that resource.”