Ok, maybe that’s not a perfect comparison. After all, municipal waste is made up of countless materials, many of them
bonded together, while the forest products industry’s waste is,
in a word, wood.
Still, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the industry
is one of the most efficient around. Like the farmer who uses
all parts of the pig except the squeal, modern mills, turneries,
and furniture manufacturers find markets for nearly all of their
waste. In fact, they don’t even like to call it that. The preferred
term is byproducts.
“The only waste is the noise,” said Clifford Allard, the owner
of Allard’s Lumber in Brattleboro, Vermont.
“There’s nothing left when we’re done,” said Joe Robertie, the
co-owner of Precision Lumber Co., a pine mill in Wentworth,
It wasn’t always that way. Not too long ago, mills used teepee
burners – primitive conical contraptions – to burn mill waste,
including slabs, just to get rid of it, creating huge amounts of
smoke and ash in the process. Those that didn’t burn the waste
stockpiled it. As late as the 1970s, many mills had mountains of
decomposing bark and sawdust looming over their yards.
When Robertie got out of college in the 1970s, he went to
work for Andover Wood Products in Maine. “There was a
mountain of bark up there, hundreds of truckloads,” he remembers. They were dumbfounded when a guy offered 50 cents
a yard and bought the entire thing. He even brought his own
equipment to load it. They thought he was crazy.
Now there is not only a market for virtually
every byproduct, there are competing markets
for some. What happened? “Capitalism,” said
Jason Brochu, the co-owner of Pleasant River
Lumber Co., which operates two large pine
mills and two large spruce mills in Maine.
Existing industries found uses for some
types of waste and new industries developed
around others. In addition, sawmills have
reduced the amount of waste they create by
using technology to optimize saw cuts and
shifting to thin-kerf saw blades.
Sawdust served as cattle and horse bedding. Later, it became a primary ingredient
in particle board. Then it was used as pulp.
Then wood pellets. Then as fuel for biomass
electricity plants. Chips were turned into
pulp, then fuel. Planer shavings are bagged
and sold for pet or horse bedding. Edging
slabs are chipped for biomass fuel or sold in
bulk to sugarmakers as evaporator fuel. Hardwood chips can be
processed for playground mulch so little knees don’t get skinned
up. Some turneries sell their waste blocks by the bag as wood
stove fuel, while some sawmills have found higher-end markets
for small offcuts. Bark frequently goes into landscape mulch
– a market worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year in the
United States today.
Some byproducts are still burned, but no longer aimlessly.
What isn’t sold for some other use is generally burned to heat a
mill’s drying kiln or to generate electricity.
Lloyd Irland, a forest economist and president of The Irland
Group, a Wayne, Maine-based consulting firm, says that even
the term byproducts doesn’t capture the holistic approach that’s
needed in today’s forest products industry. He views leftover
wood materials as joint products. “When you manufacture a
two-by-four, you manufacture all this other stuff with it. And
you have to market those joint products effectively because they
are built into the price of your raw material. The price you pay
for delivered logs includes an assumption that there’s a certain
value there. And if you can’t get it out, your competitor will.”
While in many cases it was entrepreneurs who took note of
all the wood that was going to waste and created markets for
this material, credit also goes to those in the
industry who have changed with the times. At
Pleasant River Lumber, byproducts (or joint
products) now account for about a quarter
of revenues, said Jason Brochu. “We treat it
as kind of a separate business and have one
person responsible for managing it company-
Brochu acknowledges that the markets for
byproducts developed around the availabil-
ity of materials. But he adds that “the forest
products industry has capitalized on that as
well as anybody. There’s no waste.” Pleasant
River burns some of its bark and sawdust in
biomass boilers. Most of that is used to heat
dry kilns, though the company has one mill
with a small turbine to generate electricity.
Most of the residuals are sold. “There’s noth-
ing we don’t have markets for. We sell every-
thing,” he said.
“When you manufacture a
two-by-four, you manufacture
all this other stuff with it.
And you have to market those
joint products effectively
because they are built into
the price of your raw material.
The price you pay for delivered
logs includes an assumption
that there’s a certain value
there. And if you can’t get it
out, your competitor will.”