Going full circle … forest industry urged to work together to capitalise on circular economy


In a new report, researchers have called for more collaboration between forest industry stakeholders across the supply chain, to inspire more product re-use and minimise waste.

The report considers how the industry can embrace the principles of the circular economy. In doing so, further steps can be taken towards overcoming issues around resource scarcity, waste generation and the environmental impact of operations.

The discussion paper, Circular economy and Australian wood products industry, was commissioned by FWPA and developed by Steve Mitchell, Principal Consultant at thinkstep-anz, a leading provider of sustainability consulting.

The research comes at a time when state and national governments are taking an increased interest in the circular economy, waste and recycling. As a result, the industry can expect a growing number of government grants to encourage action, as well as increasing regulation to discourage bad environmental and social outcomes. The paper highlights that it is vital for forestry to remain on the front foot amidst these changes.

What is the circular economy?

The circular economy is an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and recycling resources, encapsulated by the phrase “one person’s waste is another person’s raw material”.

Mitchell explains the circular economy as an alternative to traditional linear economies in which goods are made, used and then disposed of, and often reliant on non-renewable energy.

It’s all about designing out waste and pollution and keeping products and materials in use. The theory works on the principle that the longer materials and resources remain in use, the more value can be extracted from them,” said Mr Mitchell.

How can it apply to the forestry and wood product industry?

The paper found our industry is in a strong position to maximise the benefits associated with the circular economy, especially because timber and wood products are derived from renewable bio-based materials, giving them a clear and inherent advantage.

“This industry utilises a renewable resource, which in Australia is produced sustainably. There are also good examples to be found within the industry of efficient use of harvest and processing residues, for instance the provision of inputs for paper, medium-density fibreboard (MDF), and particleboard production,” said Mr Mitchell.

The circular economy ‘in action’

The report outlines some successful examples of where the circular economy can already be found in the Australian forestry and wood product sector. Highlighted are the recycling activities of D&R Henderson, which manufactures softwood timber, particleboard and melamine laminated products, and Borg Manufacturing, which manufactures melamine panels and components.

“Both these companies are incorporating the softwood offcuts of frame and truss businesses, as well as other end-of-life wood, into new particleboard products,” explained Mr Mitchell.

Recommendations moving forward

Based on the analysis, the researchers developed a suite of practical recommendations that could be undertaken, which play to the industry’s strengths, address weaknesses and counter threats.

“Going forward, there are good opportunities for higher value bio-based products, and more energy to be derived from forestry and primary production wood residues,” said Mr Mitchell.

“Further measures taken by the forest industry could include practices such as designing for disassembly, supply chain innovation and collaboration, new leasing models, and the increased use of renewable energy and renewable materials,” he said.

When it comes to the disposal or reuse of end-of-life timber, one of the main challenges faced by the forest and wood products industry arises from the non-wood chemical components which are often used in the creation of wood products. While these chemicals have been introduced to enhance long-term durability and performance, they can cause problems for disposal and subsequent recycling. The main products of concern are preservative treated timber and engineered wood products, including medium-density fibreboard (MDF) plywood and laminated veneer lumber (LVL).

Often, traditional low-cost recycling markets — such as those associated with untreated offcuts and sawdust — are not available to products that have been treated with chemicals, because environmental agencies are naturally cautious of their release into the environment. The report notes that some of these barriers are being removed as regulators become more familiar with the different chemicals. However, this can take significant time and effort.

To overcome these issues, the report recommends:

·       Supporting and keeping abreast of research into the use of bio-based substitutes for the problematic chemicals;

·       Using identifiers that include technical information on all non-wood substances utilised in wood products; and

·       Trialling equipment that will enable the high-speed identification and removal of treated timber from the wood waste stream.

Underpinning all recommendations is the need for the industry to take a collaborative approach.

“The industry is well placed to take advantage of the opportunities that a move to a more circular economy entails, while addressing weaknesses and threats. However, the circular economy needs to be a collaborative endeavour,” explained Mr Mitchell.

To advance understanding and action amongst industry stakeholders, the report recommends the establishment of an Australian Sustainable Timber Group, comprising interested parties from across the value chain.

“This would help improve understanding of the circular economy and related sustainability issues. It would enable stakeholders to work collaboratively on the use and re-use of wood-based products. Such a group can also work on obtaining external funding for identified circular economy projects,” Mr Mitchell said.

FWPA is currently considering the recommendations and what the next steps could look like.

You can request a full copy of the report by emailing Ric.Sinclair@fwpa.com.au