Redwood: The Natural Solution to a Man-Made Problem

Sustainably managed redwood forests pull carbon out of the atmosphere and store it throughout their life.

By Charlie Jourdain

Mankind is ingenious if nothing else; and such inventiveness has allowed us to make incredible advances in science, technology and other pursuits that have made life easier. At the same time, some of our leaps and breakthroughs have resulted in unintended consequences that haven’t been kind to the environment.

At the California Redwood Association, we embrace science and technology, but we also believe that in many cases using products grown by nature can be the best decision for the environment and for the end-user. Sometimes, man does not need to add to what is already wonderfully designed.

We’ve discovered this as we’ve analyzed building products – most notably lumber used in decking. Though likely with the best of intentions, there are companies that try to use recycled plastic to create lumber (a composite, synthetic mix), but in doing so, contribute to carbon emissions through the use of fossil fuels. And just as unfortunate, composite lumber often gets dumped in landfills, where it doesn’t go away.

In the end, through what we’ve experienced and through an extensive Life Cycle Assessment and Environmental Product Declaration, we’re convinced that whenever possible we should responsibly use what the Earth has already provided. If so, we are much closer to being truly sustainable than cooking up products in the lab.

Redwood is biodegradable; when it’s lived out its usefulness it goes back to the earth to help make more trees.

Over the last several decades, redwood lumber producers have turned the legendary wood species into what may be the most environmentally friendly building product in the world.

How? By truly embracing the attributes of redwood, which grows naturally only in a small region of the world, protecting redwood that is ancient, and then growing redwood on highly-regulated, private commercial lands zoned specifically for timber production. Redwood is so unique that it seems to have been made for building – fire resistant, insect resistant, durable, resists warping, strong and beautiful.

And how does it compare to man-made products?:

  • Renewable vs. Non-renewable: Redwood is grown using the soil, sun and water, and for every tree that is harvested in a privately-owned commercial forest, seven trees are planted. Developing man-made products requires using chemicals, fossil fuels, colorants, binding agents and fillers before being molded or extruded.
  • Carbon footprint: Redwood decks store carbon throughout their lives, and use significantly less energy and fresh water to be processed into lumber. A composite deck consumes 15 times more energy – 87 percent of that energy comes from non-renewable fossil fuels, a major source of carbon emissions.
  • Biodegradability: Redwood is biodegradable; when it’s lived out its usefulness it goes back to the earth to help make more trees. Composite decks, however, often go to a landfill.

We also believe that it’s important to remember that the huge redwood trees that come to mind for many – the towering and legendary trees – are protected in perpetuity on 100,000 acres of parks and protected lands.

All the members of the California Redwood Association (CRA) are committed to sound forest management practices to ensure that our forests will remain healthy, beautiful and productive for generations to come.  We take pride that 100 percent of CRA member owned timberlands are certified as well-managed by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).  This means responsible harvesting at sustainable levels and protection of the natural habit.  

At the California Redwood Association, we’ve seen the market come full-circle in terms of understanding the natural solution vs. man-made solutions. More and more homeowners and remodelers are realizing that to be truly green, it’s hard to improve on Mother Nature.

Charlie Jourdain is president of the California Redwood Association.

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3 responses

  1. The composite plastic lumber mentioned above is one of the most common end roads for recycled plastic. Plastic degrades every time it’s melted, so there are limited uses for the yogurt tubs and shampoo bottles we throw in the recycling bin, and lumber (and fleece) are two of the common reuses.

    Since these products include a waste material that would be headed to a landfill otherwise, it isn’t fair to criticize composite lumber for its carbon footprint and the fact that it is eventually landfill bound. The materials that make up this plastic lumber don’t come from virgin plastic (so they aren’t from new fossil fuels) and will be headed to the landfill whether or not they make a pit stop as plastic lumber.

    It’s an interesting argument that redwood is a more environmentally sound product because it’s biodegradable. I totally dig it, but unfortunately we still need to find a useful home for all that used plastic, so I’m not sure it’s an either-or.

  2. Risks associated
    with PVC waste disposal:

    A minor percentage of PVC is recycled, and the potential for substantialre-use of PVC
    is limited. The sorting of PVC waste plastic for recycling is complicated and expensive, and in reality, only a small portion of PVC is recycled (Kielhorn etal., 2000). According to an American Plastics Council post-consumer recycling rates study (“Post-industrial and Post-consumer Vinyl Reclaim; Material Flow and Uses in North America”), approximately 18 million pounds of post-consumer vinyl were recycled in 1997. Although this may sound like an impressive recycling effort, it represents only 0.1% of the 17.4 billion pounds of worldwide PVC production. The report notes that “collection and separation are the two greatest obstacles limiting the opportunity due to contamination and high recovery costs/logistics issues”. (Principia Partners, on behalf of the American Plastics Council, July 1999, pages 1, 4 and 5 of executive summary).

    A review of environmental aspects of PVC was completed by the Ministry of the Environmentin Denmark (Denmark Ministry, 1995, Environmental Project No. 313). The report noted that although PVC is a reusable and recyclable material, the collection and sorting that is required gives rise to organizational and economic problems which have slowed down the development of recycling (Denmark Ministry, 1995, page 12). The lack of efficient recycling of PVC has also been noted in the United States. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, only 0.5% of total post-consumer PVC is recovered for processing. Since PVC is “rarely recycled, it either ends up in a landfill or is burned (leading to more heavy metal and dioxin emissions)”(Healthy Buildings, 2000).

    Some private companies have determined that PVC is inappropriate for their products. For example, IKEA requires that packaging must be reusable or recyclable and contain as high a proportion of recycled material as possible. PVC is not an approved packaging material at IKEA (IKEA website, 2000). General Motors no longer applies PVC spray coating to the under body or the wheel wells of the current S-series space frames. The result, according to GM, will be a reduction in air emission of approximately 25 tons per year (GM, 2001).·Honda is taking steps to eliminate PVC use from their car interiors (Automotive Engineering, 2001).·Nike determined in 1993 to phase out the use of PVC in all product lines, based on environmental criteria developed by their Nike Environmental Action Team. In reaching this decision, Nike considered a broad range of scientific information from its own consultants, industry sources, government agencies and independent monitoring groups. Many of these findings indicate that PVC may pose a risk of harm to living systems, particularly if it is manufactured or disposed of improperly (Nike, 2000).·Other companies have determined that PVC is inappropriate due to the presence of phthalate additives. Mattel, Inc., in 1998 announced its commitment to phase out phthalate in plastic teething toys for children under 36 months (Mattel, 1998).

    Alternatives to PVC:

    There are available alternatives to PVC flooring that have less production and disposal risks, and are cost effective. For example, alternative materials include natural linoleum, bamboo, wood, cork, slab flooring and non chlorinated plastics (Healthy Buildings, 2000). They note that “natural linoleum” provides the closest natural replacement for vinyl, sharing its water resistant properties while being made of more environmentally sound materials than any of the plastic options. Natural linoleum is distributed by both Armstrong (DLW Linoleum) and Forbo (Healthy Buildings, 2000).

    A new kind of “natural plastic” made from plants, such as corn or wheat instead of petroleum, is being produced by Cargill Dow Polymers, LLC (Cargill, 2000). The process utilizes carbon harvested by plants from the air and soil and stored in starchy sugars. The sugars are extracted and converted by microbes into lactic acid . The lactic acid is then chemically reacted with a catalyst to produce polylactide (Wall Street Journal, 2000).


    PVC production, use, combustion and disposal result in potential exposure of production workers, residents living near production facilities, and the general public to chemicals from PVC that are associated with adverse effects on health. The production, combustion and disposal of PVC presents risks to production workers and neighbors of such facilities that could be avoided by use of alternative materials. Therefore, PVC flooring/decking does not qualify as a green building material.

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