Is Wood More Sustainable Than Plastic? (Wood vs Plastic Comparison)

In this guide, we outline whether wood might be more sustainable than plastic, and vice versa.

We compare some of the key factors involved in the production, usage and waste management of each.

 

Summary – Is Wood More Sustainable Than Plastic?

Breaking Down Which Might Be More Sustainable

Ultimately, whether wood is more sustainable than plastic depends on variables such as the application it is being used for, and how it’s sourced, produced and managed on a product or item case by case basis.

For example, they might be used as raw building materials, or they may be fabricated and treated with various finishes to make furniture and other processed items.

 

But, general sustainability consideration for wood vs plastic might be:

1. Sourcing Of Materials

Wood can come from tree plantations, and trees are a natural and renewable resource

These plantation forests may or may not be sustainably managed (FSC certification is one example of a sustainably sourced certification)

Wood may also come from pre or post consumer sources, such as off-cuts of wood, and a certain % of wood material in new wood products will in this case be recycled wood material.

Plastic on the other hand is traditionally a synthetic material sourced from fossil fuel feed stock.

Plastic can be recycled and used for new plastic products, but not all plastic is recyclable.

 

2. Production

Wood may use less energy and have a lower carbon footprint compared to plastic in the production stage.

Although, there may be some indicators where plastic is more eco friendly in the production process depending on the type of wood it is being compared to

 

3. Transport and Delivery

Plastic tends to be a lighter material than solid wood, and may have a lower transport and delivery footprint due to lower energy and fuel consumption.

 

4. Waste Management

Wood is an organic material that may have greater potential for re-use and recycling compared to some plastics

Plastic in general as a material has a low recycling rate in some countries comparative to some other materials

 

5. Pollution

Wood is biodegradable, whereas plastic is not.

Comparatively, plastic takes a long time to break down, and may contribute pollution issues that wood may not.

 

Overall

Overall, wood may be a more sustainable material across various indicators.

However, finished wood products with other materials added like metal and plastic trimming, glues, varnishes etc., have a significantly higher eco footprint [than just wood or timber by itself] (sustainability.stackexchange.com)

 

Other Relevant Considerations For Wood

Note that wood pulp is also used for the production of paper, which we compared to plastic in this guide.

Paper has a different sustainability footprint to raw wood, as paper mills are known to not be very eco friendly

 

Examples Of Products With Both Wood & Plastic Options

Building Materials

Furniture (chair, bed, table, bench, etc.)

Flooring (timber flooring vs vinyl flooring made from PVC)

 

Wood vs Plastic: Comparison

General Sustainability Of Each Material

– Sourcing Of Materials

Wood comes from trees, which are a renewable natural resource.

Trees can be sustainably grown and managed as tree stock.

Plastic comes from natural gas and crude oil non renewable fossil fuel feedstock.

Some may question whether we will run out of fossil fuels like oil or natural gas (used as a feedstock for plastic) anytime soon.

 

– Production

At the production stage, wood may be more sustainable across various aspects and indicators:

Wood can be fairly energy efficient in production compared to metal and plastic. Most of the energy used in timber production especially comes in drying the timber (fwpa.com.au).

Materials such as concrete, plastic or aluminium, require a lot of energy from fossil fuels to produce compared to timber (reuters.com).

In addition, there is very little waste when wooden products are made, whether it’s floorboards, furniture, doors, or something else entirely. Any residual chippings can be burned as an energy source, or used as sawdust during manufacture (greenne.com)

 

It’s also worth mentioning that trees both absorb carbon, and produce oxygen.

 

– Delivery & Transport

Solid wood is usually heavier than plastic, which might make delivering and transporting it more expensive, and use more fuel and have a higher carbon footprint.

It may also be less space efficient.

 

– Usage

It would be interesting to compare the eco impact of the U value or insulation value of timber vs uPVC vs aluminum window frames. But, we couldn’t find any exact figures.

It is noted though that the cellular makeup of wood means that it naturally retains heat more effectively than other materials (greenne.com)

 

– Waste Management & Recycling

From a waste management, recycling and re-use perspective, wood may be an efficient material to use that has high re-use potential.

Plastic in general as a material has a low recycling rate in some countries comparative to some other materials

Wood can be burnt for energy as waste, but so can plastic.

However, some reports say that timber incineration for energy production is carbon neutral

 

[Timber mills make use of] The entire tree … Bark is removed and used for mulch and decorative landscaping. First cuts and unusable board feet are recovered or culled for use in engineered wood products. Board ends are cut up and sold as hobby wood. Sawdust and shavings are packaged for animal bedding. In some mills, scrap wood is even used to produce energy or steam to keep the mill and kilns running (ironwoods.com).

 

In addition, wood is usually able to be upcycled, salvaged, and reclaimed easily from timber mills (used for secondary applications such as mulching and used for landscaping for example, or, off cuts can be used for other uses) (reuters.com)

 

Of the approximate 70m tons of wood sent to landfill annually, the US government estimates 30m tons of it could have been reused [and there is potential to reclaim more wood from house remodelling and demolition than what we currently do] (theguardian.com).

 

The incineration of timber for energy production can be regarded as CO2 neutral (sustainability.stackexchange.com)

 

Using recycled wood in construction and then burning it as fuel could lead to a reduction in carbon emissions by up to 135 million tonnes a year (reuters.com).

 

– Pollution

Plastic pollution (in the ocean, and on land) is currently reported as an issue far more than pollution from wood or timber.

Plastic also breaks down into microplastics and nanoplastics in the environment.

 

– Impact On Humans

The potential negative impact of plastic on humans and human health might be more significant than wood

Additives in plastic like BPA for example might be one potential concern.

Micro plastics in the air indoors that humans may inhale are also more closely linked to plastic furniture and textiles.

 

– Impact On Wild Life & Environment

Plastic may have more of a negative impact on wildlife than wood.

Ingestion, entanglement and leaching of chemicals may be examples of potential issues.

 

Although, … wood … from ‘illegal logging or irresponsible deforestation’ [may be a potential issue for wild life and the environment] (reuters.com)

 

– Durability

Both materials can last a long time, but hardwood in particular can last up to 100 years as a door (greenne.com)

 

Some types of plastic such as some soft plastics and some packaging plastics have a high waste rate, and this obviously means more waste is generated compared to longer life plastics.

 

– Cost/Economy

Both materials are reasonably affordable.

 

Wood can beat out plastic for some products though:

‘Wooden pallets are often less expensive to acquire than plastic pallets, and they are usually able to be used for more extended periods of time’ (palletone.com)

 

Wood vs Plastic In Building, Furniture & Other Applications

Across various applications, wood may be more sustainable as a material than plastic, or, may outperform plastic across certain indicators.

Some of those indicators may include greenhouse has emissions, energy consumption to produce, eco friendliness to dispose of, and pollution they are responsible for.

 

Wood is more favorable than most other material substitutes when it comes to global warming potential of different materials in construction and furniture (sustainability.stackexchange.com)

 

Other studies also show wood as being one of the most eco friendly materials across various measures/indicators for building materials, furniture, TV units, window frames, and other applications (fwpa.com.au)

 

Furniture, floors and doors made out of wood require less energy to produce than aluminium or plastic, and on top of that wood continues to store carbon for years … Carbon stored by wood products offsets nearly all of the greenhouse gas emissions related to their production (reuters.com)

 

Wood is by far the superior choice for building in all categories: total energy used to build, occupy, and dispose of; air and water emissions produced during manufacturing; solid waste generated in production and recovery; greenhouse gases produced during manufacturing; ecological resource use (ironwoods.com)

 

In the ironwoods.com resource link below, they have two good tables comparing wood and plastic across various eco and performance indicators

 

The Sustainability Of Plastic

Read more specifically about the sustainability of plastic in this guide.

This guide also outlines some of the overall pros and cons of plastic.

 

Other Factors To Consider

– Just as there are different types of plastic, there are different types of wood.

Each different type of wood (and wood material, product or item) can have a different sustainability footprint 

 

– The waste management systems, facilities and technology in a given country or State make a difference to the sustainability not just of different materials, but different waste items and products (because of how different waste materials and items are processed among the different disposal options at different rates)

 

– Whether or not the wood product is made of recycled wood can make a difference

The same applies to salvaging wood where possible from existing wood products 

 

– How long a wood product or item lasts, or how many times it can be used/re-used before being thrown out, impacts it’s sustainability footprint

 

– Sourcing wood from sustainably managed wood stock makes a difference in terms of sustainability

Sustainability forestry certification are one example of this

 

– The sustainability of products containing wood can change when they are used in combination with other materials and substances

Wood based products can come made with other materials like glues, plastics, metal, finishes & treatments, etc – all these additional materials and substances can change the sustainability footprint of a wood product (sustainability.stackexchange.com)

 

 

Sources

1. https://sustainability.stackexchange.com/questions/6896/wood-vs-plastic-vs-metal-furniture-and-other-items-is-the-wood-product-genera

2. https://inhabitat.com/materials-smackdown-whats-greener-wood-metal-or-plastic/

3. https://www.reuters.com/article/climatechange-forests-furniture/ditch-metal-and-plastic-and-turn-to-wood-to-save-the-planet-says-u-n-idUSL8N1A63B3

4. http://www.greenne.com/wood-environmentally-friendly-choice/

5. https://www.palletone.com/why-wood-is-the-most-sustainable-and-durable-material-for-pallets/

6. http://ironwoods.com/woods-vs-plastics/

7. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/recycled-wood-green-sustainable-built-environment

8. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/is-paper-more-sustainable-than-plastic-comparison/

9. https://www.fwpa.com.au/images/marketaccess/PN03.2103%20furniture%20review%20WEB.pdf

10. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/plastic-pollution-on-land-faq-guide/

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