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Going full circle? Changing the end-of-life approach to timber could improve profitability and environmental credentials

Researchers are seeking new solutions that could change the way timber products are managed beyond their primary purpose. The project follows a 2020 issues paper commissioned by FWPA which focused on the circular economy.

The work could lead to boosted profitability for the sector through access to new markets, wood products that carry added value, a reduced demand for timber imports, and an even better environmental image. 

It’s all part of the FWPA-initiated National Centre for Timber Durability and Design Life’s commitment to exploring new technologies, strategies and opportunities for the disposal and reuse of treated timbers and Engineered Wood Products (EWPs).

A proposal is currently being developed to fund a research project that would investigate opportunities to advance what’s known as ‘the circular economy’, by closing the loop on avoidable waste, and consequently creating new business opportunities and conserving resources.

The circular economy is a term used to describe an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and recycling resources. It provides an alternative to traditional linear economies – in which goods are made, used and disposed of – that are often dependant on non-renewable energy.

“The circular economy is focused on ‘designing out’ waste and pollution, and keeping materials in use wherever it’s possible, safe and appropriate to do so,” said Professor Jeff Morrell, Director at the Centre for Timber Durability and Design Life.

“The concept of the circular economy is underpinned by the principle that the longer materials remain in use, the more value can be extracted from them. For the forestry industry, a circular economy approach might mean consideration at the design stage of how timber products can be repurposed following initial use.”

Timber should be an obvious beneficiary of the circular economy given its positive environmental attributes. However, the various resins and biocides used in the creation of treated timber and EWPs can be problematic. While these treatments have many positive attributes, their inherent protective and structural properties pose challenges when it comes to recycling and disposal. These challenges include concerns from policy makers about toxic chemicals being released when the timber is reprocessed, or burned and converted to ash. 

It is estimated that Australia uses 355Mkg of treated wood annually. Disposal comes with transportation and handling costs (which can be particularly high for wood, on account of its bulkiness), and the option of landfill no longer sits well with environmentally-conscious businesses. Even a five per cent diversion of the timber currently ending up in landfill would save significant dollars in tipping fees annually. Meanwhile, recovery strategies having the potential to create additional income streams and further strengthen the green credentials of timber and its users.

Several more sustainable alternatives to landfill already exist for treated timber, including re-sawing for lumber, fragmentation for composites, reprocessing for finger-jointing, animal bedding, composting, and incineration to supplement or replace fossil fuels. However, there is little guidance available about which techniques are most appropriate for the diverse range of timber products available. 

“The diversity of treated timber and engineered wood products adds to the complexity of recycling, but also suggests there could be many opportunities for new and widespread applications,” said Jeff.

The research proposal outlines plans to establish a multi-disciplinary panel of experts, comprising preservative and resin suppliers, product manufacturers, end-users and researchers. This highly-specialised group will work to characterise condition at end-of-life for each material, and identify potential risks and opportunities associated with reuse or disposal. This will be supported by a review of existing recovery technologies to identify and fill knowledge gaps.

Ultimately, the team would develop a comprehensive resource to support the reuse and recycling of wood-based materials. The program would allow users to input treatment and commodity data, which would then generate outputs identifying the associated opportunities or hurdles.

The proposal will be used by the team to secure funding under the Federal Government’s Cooperative Research Centre Project (CRC-P), which provides grants of up to $3 million for short-term research collaborations.

Join us as we reflect on our achievements so far …

The team at the National Centre for Timber Durability and Design Life is planning its first ever research showcase this April in Brisbane, providing opportunities to highlight the accomplishments of staff and students over the past two-and-a-half years.

The accomplishments of the centre’s researchers will be the focus of a series of short 10 to 12 minute presentations, each relating to the team’s primary objectives, followed by a Q&A session.

Industry is invited to attend the showcase, which will be held at the EcoScience Precinct, 41 Boggo Road, Dutton Park on Wednesday 14 April 2021 between 9am and 4pm.

The showcase is being planned in collaboration with partners at the University of Queensland, the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, the University of South Australia, and the University of Tasmania. It is free to attend, but registration in advance is required due to the restrictions associated with COVID-19. 

Please click here to register.

Posted Date: March 21, 2021

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