Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Those of you who have been reading for a while will know that I recently got into woodworking. This is partly because money's tight, partly because I like working with my hands. But working with wood can be problematic for people who care about the environment. Sure, it's nice to look at and feels good, and it's not made from petroleum or harsh chemicals. But a lot of it comes from big clearcuts. And some really nice woods are from threatened species of trees. Believe it or not, a lot of it is harvested by tree poachers.

I have nothing against cutting down trees. They're a renewable resource, and a good one for many things. I do have problems with large-scale clearcutting, tree poaching and non-sustainable forestry practices. It also takes a lot of fell the trees, haul them out, mill them and ship them down to the city.

So I was happy to receive a literal windfall.

This winter saw some heavy snow up near my parents' place (a couple hours north of Toronto), and it knocked down an old apple tree in the back field. While visiting last weekend, I grabbed a dozen or so of the logs my dad had cut. They're in the basement drying now, and should provide some lovely wood for crafts. No extra fossil fuels used, no killing of a live tree, just ethically pure lumber. It's not a lot, maybe a dozen board feet or so to be claimed from foot-long logs. But that's enough for a couple little projects I've got in mind.

But what about those bigger projects? Sure there's certified "forest-friendly" timber out there. But I'm a tenant. I'm not often looking for studs. Since my wood needs are mostly for furniture or crafts, I want smaller quantities of pretty wood. Ethical wood, if possible.

After my first post on the subject, my friend Dimitra suggested checking out Urban Tree Salvage. Their wood isn't cheap, but they've got some spectacular material available. And it's all from sources that'll set even a hardcore environmentalist's heart aflutter. I'm a bit distracted with the garden right now, but I do plan on ordering a bit of lumber for projects to be done next winter.

Great as all this sounds, how bad is conventionally sourced lumber? We all know about clearcuts. I've certainly spent time in some huge ones in Northern Ontario, and seen bogland drained to speed tree growth. There are plenty of questionable practices here and abroad. But putting those concerns aside for a moment, just how much energy does it take to produce my lumber?

According to Dr. Howard Odum at the University of Florida, it takes about 40,640 BTUs to produce an eight-foot 2x4. According to NRCAN, that's just shy of 12 kilowatts (about 39 cents at today's wholesale prices in Ontario). The Ontario grid, last I checked, produces about 0.22 kg of CO2 per kwH, so if all the energy were from the grid, producing that 2x4 would generate 2.64 kg of carbon dioxide. It seems fair to assume that it's actually going to be higher than that, since Ontario's grid includes hydro and a bit of wind power, while harvesting the lumber will be done with diesel trucks and machines. Oh, and there's also the question of how far the board has to come...

But at the very least, my little windfall stash should save a kilogram or two of CO2 emissions. Not a lot, but just enough to make me feel good about it. Thanks for the logs, dad!

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