In 2002, the emerald ash borer, an invasive insect destructive to ash trees, was first identified in Michigan, and a number of agencies began working to figure out how to deal with afflicted ash trees in the southeastern part of the state. Many trees needed to be removed to prevent further damage, and much of this wood ended up being burned or sent to landfills.
One of the positive things to emerge from the plight, though, is the Urbanwood Project, a collaboration between the nonprofit Southeast Michigan Resource Conservation and Development Council, the Genesee Conservation District and Recycle Ann Arbor, an organization devoted to recycling in Ann Arbor, Mich. The Urbanwood Project utilizes the wood from diseased or other fallen urban trees and turns it into a usable resource. The project, which is a cooperative of local sawmills and conservation organizations, connects the dots between people who have fallen trees, sawmills that are willing to process unusual logs and those in the community interested in purchasing unique lumber.
“So far as we know, this cooperative of partners working together and selling urban wood is the only one of its kind in the country,” Jessica Simons, Natural Resources Specialist at the Southeast Michigan Resource Conservation and Development Council, told Earth911. “There are definitely producers like this all across the country and there are initiatives starting, but we don’t know of any other that is organized quite in this way so the mills are actually working together on sales.”
The project grew out of a happy accident in 2005 when Recycle Ann Arbor was looking to put some new flooring in one of their conference rooms and sought out a sustainable option. They had heard some local sawmills were creating products from ash trees, and the Southeast Michigan RC&D Council put them in touch with those producers, Simons explained. Eventually, people began asking about the new flooring, which led Recycle Ann Arbor to sell a small amount of the urban wood in their reuse center. Out of those small beginnings, Urbanwood has grown into a project that involves half a dozen sawmills and two retail outlets, one at Recycle Ann Arbor’s ReUse Center and the other at a Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Flint, Mich.
Urban Tree Waste by the Numbers
Urbanites (and suburbanites) may not think of themselves as living in forests, but there are actually large numbers of trees within cities. Before Urbanwood came together, Jessica Simons’ organization wanted to learn just how many.
“We wanted to find out ‘Where is the wood going? Is any being reused? How much wood is there in southeast Michigan?’ So we commissioned a couple of different studies using USDA funds,” Simons said. The studies concluded there were 73.5 million board feet of wood from dead and dying trees in the area, enough to build 5,600 average sized homes.
“We found private industries were paying almost nine million dollars per year just to dispose of wood waste in southeast Michigan,” Simons explained. Not only was the wood not being reused – it was also costing the communities a lot of money.
The inital study also concluded that 28 percent of wood collected was sent to landfills, although that figure included other wood materials such as crates and pallets, as well. According to Simons, Michigan law technically doesn’t allow green waste to be thrown in landfills, but does allow for it to be added as “cover” to keep waste from being exposed, so in practice, urban wood does find its way into landfills. Other common uses of urban wood have been – and still are – energy, mulch and firewood.
“We don’t begrudge any of those uses,” Simons said. “We just want to see the wood used first and foremost, but what we advocate for is the highest and best use.” By this, Urbanwood means the best logs should be selected for longer lasting purposes.
How Urban Wood Becomes Lumber
Currently, the Urbanwood Project does not get directly involved in how local sawmills are sourcing their wood, though each partner does sign a pledge saying all wood comes from urban trees that weren’t grown for their timber value. Each mill acquires logs by working directly with communities, tree care companies and homeowners. These locally owned sawmills differ from others in the industry because they take the time to process these unique and sometimes challenging to handle trees.
Once a mill acquires a log, they process it and the lumber is sold at one of Urbanwood’s retail locations where builders, woodworkers, architects and other consumers purchase the wood.
“If you go to Lowe’s or Home Depot, you’ll find a few species of wood cut into a few dimensions […] As a salvage operation, we are making products out of what is available, so our products are much, much more varied,” Simons said. Oftentimes, Urbanwood’s marketplaces have wood from up to 30 different species of trees available including unique types such as mulberry and box elder.
Urbanwood facilitates a process that makes sense, since it takes something that might be wasted and makes it useful. Their work is partly about connecting people with the same interests.
“Too often the mills tend to see themselves in the forest products industry and the communities tend to not think of themselves as having forests, and so sometimes it’s simply a matter of not having the right dialogue,” Simons said. Cities need to start thinking about trees the way they think about other recyclables, as waste that needs to be collected, sorted and marketed, Simons explained.