Q&A: Sawmills and Sustainability

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Part of sustainable development is utilizing renewable resources. Through sustainably managed forests, sawmills are providing a means of  using wood products in greener and more innovative ways. To learn more about the sawmill industry in Europe, we talked with Sampa J. Auvinen, President of the European Organization of the Sawmill Industry (EOS) and CEO of Norvik Timber Industries.

Sampsa J. Auvinen.

Sampsa J. Auvinen.

How do sawmills contribute to rural development?

The European sawmill industries play a key role in the development of a green and sustainable society. With over 56% of the EU population living in rural areas, the effective implementation of rural development policies is a key component for lowering unemployment levels and returning growth to Europe. Often located in remote and less industrialized areas, the European woodworking and sawmill industry have long been a central player in rural communities supporting stable employment while encouraging investment. Indeed, the processing of timber constitutes the main source of economic revenues for forests owners. The continued development of this sector will help to avoid delocalization across the EU and enhance the competitiveness of rural areas.  In Nordic countries, the forest sector plays a particularly vital role in general economic and social development.

Source: EOS.

Source: EOS.

How do wood-based products contribute to the circular economy?

In the Circular Economy, the materials used in products should not be seen as inputs but as assets. All businesses need to step away from unsustainable models such as ‘creating – using ‐ disposing’ and think about ways to maximize the value of products over product life cycles. Optimizing the entire life cycle of materials and avoiding the production of waste are two main elements of the European Circular Economy Strategy. The Circular Economy should encourage the use of naturally and renewable raw materials, products and designs for structures and interior applications which are more environmentally-responsible and cost‐efficient to operate.

Wood products are an excellent environmental choice. They are naturally renewable, recyclable and they store significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Wood products also require considerably less energy for processing compared to other materials and at the end of the products’ life, these can be recycled and burned for the bio-energy production. Comparative studies reveal that there is virtually no waste during the manufacture of wood product.

By way of example, wood and sawmill residues can be converted into a broad range of wood-based products including pulp and paper, bio-composite materials, bio-plastics, textiles and carbon-neutral biofuels. Moreover, most wood-working manufacturing facilities use wood residues as a source of energy to run a significant portion of their operations and sometimes use it for the cogeneration of electricity avoiding the use of fossil fuels.

What efforts are being made along your supply/production chain to be environmentally sustainable?

The European Sawmill Industries are fully committed to respecting the principle and criteria defined by FOREST EUROPE on the sustainable forests management. I believe that forest resources should be used in a way that minimizes impact on the environment with clear priority given to the forest outputs that have higher added-value, such as the sawmill products that create more jobs and contribute to a better carbon balance. It is important to highlight that when sourced from sustainably-managed forests, wood represents the optimal choice as it is an environmentally-friendly material. Europe can drastically reduce CO2 emissions by increasing the carbon sink created by its forests (by optimizing their management) and by enhancing the use of sustainably produced wood products. European sawmill companies are continuously evaluating solutions and instruments to have a trusted wood sourcing supply chain.

Source: EOS.

Source: EOS.

Where do you see the most growth in sawmill activity in the future?

I expect that sawmill products will be more and more used in construction. On the one hand, the European construction market is expected to grow at a slow pace (+1%) but steadily; on the other hand, the growth potential of innovative wood-based products such as Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) is impressive. Usually referred to as CLT, the material is produced by layering three, five or seven timber sections of wood at right angles, then gluing them together. CLT can be prefabricated in a factory to any shape or dimension, and is much lighter than steel and concrete.

In several parts of Europe, in the past, the role of concrete and steel in construction was virtually unchallenged, but with climate change it is now imperative to look for new solutions. Unlike other construction products, wood-based products indeed lock in carbon for their entire life cycle. Hence, using more wood in construction represents a unique opportunity for Europe to live up to its own statements about being at the forefront of the battle to fight climate change. We encourage European policy-makers to be more sensitive to the enormous potential of sawmill products in contributing to the decarbonization of European economies and consequently implement policies which would allow the sector to flourish.

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This interview first appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of Revolve Magazine as a part of the Forest City Project.

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