Every year, countless trees are lost in the U.S. Whether these treasures are lost to disease, extreme weather, new construction or another purpose, the outcome is the same: one less tree yields a poorer environment and a dilemma. Does that green waste represent a disposal problem or an opportunity?

Wood recycling is nothing new, of course. Trees have provided the raw materials for firewood, furniture, flooring and more since humans learned how to put them to work centuries ago. Today, however, new partnerships are making reuse more viable than ever.

Bringing suppliers and consumers together

A classic commercial problem is linking supply and demand. Tree service companies, for example, generate ample raw wood products that are valuable commodities if the right buyers are available. Numerous industries are in need of those materials. Consumers also demand offerings such as mulch and building supplies. An effective way to bring the players together, along with community and industry support, helps make wood recycling a common practice.

One vehicle for uniting the parties is an industrial wood cluster. An industry or business cluster unites companies and organizations within a common geographic area that share supplies, labor and other business factors in a mutually beneficial arrangement to strengthen a commodity’s production and value. In other words, related businesses work together to support and enhance their overall operations. In the case of a wood cluster, the partners might be tree service firms, energy companies, furniture makers, landscapers and municipalities.

Common tree maintenance operations, such as this one conducted by S&S Tree Specialists in St. Paul, Minn., generate urban wood waste ready for recycling into new products. Photo: S&S Tree Specialists

Industrial wood clusters

There are several established wood clusters across the country. In Port Townsend, Wash., the end product is wooden boats. In Ohio, it’s Amish-made furniture. Wisconsin’s Ladysmith Forest Industry Park is home to cabinetmakers and producers of animal bedding and wood pellets.

Extensive wood recycling occurs through a Minnesota urban wood utilization program. With strong markets for both biomass and mulch, industry players in Minneapolis and St. Paul are pooling resources to put green waste to useful and profitable new purposes. Tree service companies, recyclers, niche businesses and those using wood for myriad purposes are further supported by Minnesota’s governmental incentives.

A winning team in the Twin Cities

An urban wood utilization initiative requires commitment from key players to be successful. The Twin Cities’ collaborative has a strong foundation in a major consumer of wood chips, District Energy St. Paul. Its combined heat and power production plant uses as many as 1,000 tons of regionally generated chips daily. That urban wood waste heats the majority of the St. Paul business district and cools about one-half of the space.

The company, which operates North America’s largest biomass-fueled hot water district heating system, sources its raw material from Environmental Wood Supply. Gathering urban wood waste from tree service firms and related businesses, Environmental compensates suppliers at the rate of $3 per yard for chips and $2.50 for mulch. Debris such as logs, branches and pallets may be disposed at the facility without compensation or dumping fees. Auxiliary services include on-site grinding within the local area and establishment of satellite facilities.

Tree service companies’ involvement

Arborists and tree service firms are typically among the strongest environmental stewards, so it is no surprise that a number of Twin City companies are among the advocates of urban wood utilization. Bratt Tree Company welcomes the opportunity for several reasons, including the fact that marketing waste wood put an end to costly disposal fees. In addition to providing District Energy with fuel, the firm markets to a pallet maker and a reclaimer. Co-owner Stan Bratt used lumber generated from local wood waste for components of his home.

Minneapolis-based Majestic Tree Care sets aside its high-quality logs for use as canoes and furniture. It also offers homeowners the opportunity to have trees removed from their properties preserved in the form of creative household items such as handmade bowls.

S&S Tree Specialists of South St. Paul has set a goal of repurposing all the wood generated from its tree removals. End products include mulch, potting soil and biomass. Its mulch coloring mechanism yields 100,000 cubic yards annually, which is marketed through lawn and garden retailers. Chips are sold to a power plant, which mixes them with poultry litter for electricity generation.

“Wood mulch production of this type is an excellent source of additional income for our company and a great service to our customers,” President Steve Sylvester says. “The machinery and space necessary for this type of production can be an investment, but the payoff to our customers and bottom line has been worth it.”

He adds that the move towards sustainability is a major trend in the tree care industry.

“This is the ‘green industry,’ but it is now going green,” Sylvester says.

S&S Tree Specialists uses wood bi products from tree removals in the Twin Cities and Western Wisconsin areas to produce 100% natural wood mulch. Photo: S&S Tree Specialists

Other key players in the Twin Cities

Tree care firms also market to auxiliary wood reusers in the area. For instance, innovative entrepreneurs Wood from the Hood sources urban wood that it transforms into specialty products such as picture frames and cutting boards. The Original Tree Swing in Minneapolis transforms logs into toys, other children’s products and, of course, tree swings. Area nurseries and construction firms also are primary users.

Forestry and governmental entities are endorsing efforts with support through education, promotion and grant funding.

When emerald ash borer disease was initially identified in the Twin Cities in 2009 and 2010, a crisis was eminent, as the metropolitan area boasts one of the country’s largest ash tree populations. The need for ash waste disposal sites dovetailed smoothly with existing wood utilization efforts. Efforts by the state forestry department are underway to effectively utilize ash remnants, helping to mitigate the disease’s negative aspects.

Benefits and challenges

Wood recycling resonates positively with many consumers, as well as tree professionals.

“Customers have responded well to the idea that their tree is not being wasted,” Sylvester says. “Instead of ending up in an incinerator, it will be enjoyed by another family as mulch.”

For those interested in taking advantage of the wood recycling and biomass markets, federal support is in place. In addition to 2009 funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, recent Department of Energy grants provide incentives for biofuel research. In May, awards totaling $47 million were announced to educational, government and private projects. In April, the agriculture and energy departments collaborated on $30 million in biomass research funding; grantees were announced in August.

Although concerns have arisen recently surrounding the greenhouse gas emissions generated by biomass fuels, energy officials state that they burn up to 86 percent cleaner than fossil fuels. The Environmental Protection Agency, another key funding source, appears to agree. In March, it proposed a three-year deferment of Clean Air Act permitting requirements for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from biomass sources.

Although wood utilization projects in Minnesota and other areas are reporting success, some involved in enterprises dependent upon green waste indicate that steady supply streams can be difficult to establish.

Green waste becomes a commodity when processed into materials such as mulch and biofuel. Photo: Almstead Tree & Shrub Care Company, LLC

Resources for wood utilization

To avoid those obstacles, evaluation and preplanning of wood utilization endeavors is key. The Southeast Michigan Resource Conservation and Development Council suggests the following steps.

  • Review the current state of community wood utilization — What programs are in place? What are the area’s needs?
  • Review resources — What does a tree inventory reveal about the state of local trees, including removal statistics and disease pressures.
  • Evaluate capacity — What staff, expertise and funding is available?
  • Assess opportunities — What industries have an ongoing demand for high and low-quality green waste? What new enterprises would benefit and support the key players?
  • Plan partnerships — Which community entities should be part of the initiative? Are vital resources, such as sawmills, available? Assess the capacity of partners and establish financial protocol.
  • Examine public policy and popular opinion — What municipal ordinances impact a wood utilization endeavor? Is community support in place or will education and outreach be required?

Additional resources are available from the USDA Forest Service and your area’s land grant universities.