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Timber at the core of the circular economy

There’s no more time for business as usual for the construction industry.

As the world tips the scales by consuming 100 billion tonnes of materials a year, this milestone needs to be acted upon, not celebrated.

The circular economy is a topic that we keep returning to. Adapting to this way of thinking is imperative for the construction industry to reduce its negative environmental impact. A circular approach is the way forward to help reduce our current linear method which encourages waste. Circularity needs to be designed into construction projects to ensure it is the most sustainable route, using the most sustainable materials.

2021 Circularity Gap Report Image of report

These are the sentiments of the latest Circularity Gap report from impact organisation, Circle Economy. Inspired by the annual Emissions Gap report by the UN Environment Programme, the Circularity Gap Report Initiative was founded in 2017. Since then, it has been tracking the global evolution of the circular economy and highlighting where progress can be made.

Within the recently released 2021 report, it highlights seven societal needs and wants, one of which is housing.

The report advocates for retrofitting existing housing stock and finding ways to extend the life of these homes. It explores alternative routes such as co-housing and modular design for new builds that embrace flexibility and multi-use. This reduces floor space so that less materials are needed, and a more flexible layout extends the life of the building as it adapts to meet the needs of its occupants.

Critical to making housing more circular is the choice of materials. The report champions low-carbon, natural and renewable materials such as wood, straw and hemp. Using these materials alongside designing for disassembly allows for greater recyclability and regenerative material use. This helps reduce emissions, ensures materials stay in use for longer, and at the end of life, materials can still be broken down and turned into something new.

Wooden consumables

One of the key points from the report is the damaging effects of ‘take-make-waste’ practices. Consumables such as clothing and furniture play a huge role in unnecessary waste. Fortunately, consumables such as these can often be reused or recycled. It all depends on the materials they are created from.

Focusing on furniture, the report suggests, as with housing, the materials used should be low-carbon, natural, renewable and locally sourced where possible. The report encourages a design for disassembly approach, with options for customisation and for replacement parts to be easily sourced. It champions the use of wood products and by-products, focusing on responsibly sourced timber furniture.

covid-19 vaccines being transported on wooden pallets

Unwrapping timber pallets

One wood product that has proven its ability to be reused or recycled is the wooden pallet. Throughout the pandemic, the pallet and packaging industry has been an essential industry, as pallets are used primarily to transport goods safely. They have been instrumental in transporting necessities across the country, and are currently assisting with the transportation of the Covid-19 vaccine. 

A champion of circularity, timber pallets can be repaired several times for reuse in the packaging industry, giving them several 'lives' as a pallet. Additionally, pallets have also been a popular choice for home projects. Repurposed pallets are ideal for those who like a rustic or industrial touch for their home, and creative lockdown projects have seen pallets repurposed into desks, bars, coffee tables, sheds and even an outdoor cinema. 

Once wooden pallets do come to the end of their life, after being reused and repaired or repurposed, they can be recycled into chipboard, extending the life of the timber again. They are a true example of a circular product.

Case Study: James Jones & Sons Upall
James Jones & Sons have a thriving pallet repair business, with several sites across the UK that work to repair, recycle and ensure reuse of timber pallets. Their latest innovation is a new pallet protector, Upall. This product uses robust, fitted plastic guards on the areas of pallets most commonly damaged. This allows the pallet's lifespan to be increased by up to, or over 300%! The guards are fully recyclable as well, making it a perfect product for a circular economy. The infographic below details the circular process of Upall. 

Depiction of circular model used in James Jones' Upall


For anyone choosing to use wooden pallets in a project, it is important to ensure the pallets comply with international standard ISPM15. This means it must be heat treated to avoid phytosanitary risk – plant disease. The requirements came into force on 1 January 2021 and the Timber Packaging and Pallet Confederation (TIMCON) can provide further information on the regulation of pallets.

Embracing timber outdoors

Recycled timber can also be used for fencing, decking, cladding and timber garden structures. It is a great way to incorporate circular design into outdoor spaces too. To ensure the longevity of the use of timber outdoors, it is imperative to understand the need for appropriate treatment.

In a bid to improve knowledge in this area, the Wood Protection Association (WPA) has partnered with the Timber Trade Federation (TTF) and the Timber Decking & Cladding Association (TDCA). A campaign targeting merchants will launch from 1 April to ensure they are providing accurate and specific information to customers.

Taking these vital steps will ensure circular products such as those listed above will last for longer, the true aim of a circular economy.

See how wood products contribute to the circular economy and can help reduce CO2 in the atmosphere via the Wood CO2ts less campaign: https://woodforgood.com/co2







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