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And taking the gold…

Hardwood flooring is probably the flooring industry’s champion choice in the face of global warming, says Richard Aylen.

TAKE a look at the construction press and you will see a constant drive to improve sustainability. We have already made substantial gains in reducing energy use and the operational carbon associated with it and attention is now falling upon embodied carbon, which is present in every building material we use.

For anyone new to the term, embodied carbon is the carbon that is bound up in the building material itself; both naturally occurring and from the energy and resources needed for manufacture and transport. We can measure the effect of energy use on global warming, and we can similarly measure the effect of embodied carbon.

Hardwood floors, and sustainably sourced timber generally are among the best choices you can make to reduce embodied carbon in buildings. This is why you will also see steel and concrete structures being replaced by timber, and cross laminated timber being used for floor slabs and similar applications.

But what is it about timber that is so special? The answer lies in the fact that trees collect carbon when they are growing and store it up for the lifespan of the wood. The process of removing carbon from the atmosphere reduces global warming.

Any timber product including wooden floors, has a finite life span of course, but the longer the product’s life the greater the benefit to global warming. A solid wood floor can last 60 to 100 years. Engineered wood floors have a thinner top layer and a far shorter lifespan, but still provide ‘carbon capture’ for their lives. But what happens to the carbon when the floor reaches the end of its life?
Normally the timber will either decompose or be incinerated, which releases the carbon that the tree had stored up.

On this basis timber is ‘carbon neutral’, in the long term neither increasing nor decreasing the total amount of carbon in the environment. Not all materials are neutral in this way, and I’ll come onto that later.

But we can often do better than simply saying that timber is carbon neutral because there are ways that the carbon from redundant hardwood floors can still be retained after the floor has been taken up. Repurposing a reclaimed floor for use in another building is one way this can happen. If the floor is completely life-expired it may decompose and in fact a lot of recycled timber is used for wood chips for external landscaping.

When the chips eventually decompose the carbon continues to be stored in the soil, which does not increase global warming. In this context you can say that using timber will actually reduce global warming – a claim that few building products can make.

Using waste wood for biofuel in a wood burning power station will release the carbon back into the environment but will not increase the overall amount of carbon in the environment because the amount of released carbon will be no greater that the tree originally stored – so a ‘carbon neutral’ situation arises.

End of life carbon accounting for timber is in fact a highly complex issue for environmental consultants, with different outcomes depending upon the eventual fate of the wood waste. The bottom line though is that timber is one of the most sustainable choices you can make.

The most detrimental effect upon global warming happens when we take carbon from sources that otherwise would remain locked up and release it into the environment. This is why we are focusing upon breaking free from our long reliance upon oil, gas and coal, and all their derivatives.
We’re looking for alternative energy sources of course, but global warming can still increase if we use fossil oil based products such as plastics.

By extracting oil, turning it into plastics and then disposing of those plastics by incineration or by long term degradation we are putting ‘new’ carbon into the environment that would otherwise remain benign. In the flooring industry this is an issue for manufacturers of synthetic products such as carpets and vinyl. The limited ability to recycle plastics more than once relegates recycling to being only a short term strategy for this part of our industry.

Simply planting more trees to offset our use of fossil derived materials is not a viable option as this would need to happen on an unimaginable scale.

Tree planting schemes are often used for carbon offsetting because of the way that growing trees collect and store carbon. Manufacturers who are unable to reduce their effect on global warming can use carbon offsetting schemes to balance the environmental damage they are causing.

It’s important to remember though, that it is generally accepted that offsetting can only really be used as a temporary strategy to allow companies to reduce their environmental impact whilst they adopt less environmentally damaging processes and materials.

Timber and tree planting, and by association, timber floors, when they are sustainably sourced, are very much seen as a solution to global warming rather than a cause.
Richard Aylen is technical manager, Junckers

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