How sustainable is plywood?
by Lisa Stolz·
What does “sustainable” mean?
The UN report Our Common Future, introduced the term ‘sustainable development’ in 1987, stating that “humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. (Brundtland Commission)
In their book Plywood, a material story, Wilk and Bisley refer to the very large number of national (or, in the case of the EU, multinational) industry guidelines or product standards, as well as government regulations, that deal with issues of the sustainability of plywood across the world. They can relate to:
sourcing of materials,
use and safety of materials,
methods of manufacturing,
recyclability of materials,
retention and auditing of records,
inspecting and testing regimes,
product emissions, and
labelling and safety. (2017, p.190)
Further, certification schemes for timber have been set up since the mid-1990’s. Two of the widest known organisations are the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), both “setting the standards for what is a responsibly managed forest, both environmentally and socially.” (Forest Stewardship Council, 2018)
After world war two the centre of the plywood production moved from the US to Asian countries. Although there, the plywood industry contributes to a disastrous increase in deforestation and loss of rainforest, there are also countries with an enviable domestic record on forestry. “Among them is Finland, with a percentage of 73% of forest area, where yields are lower than in larger, intensively forested countries. Finnish producers, for competition reasons, concentrate on higher-quality plywoods", states Wilk and Bisley (2017, p.187-190)
When consulting Koskisen Oy, a major Finnish plywood producer, about the environmental and health performance of their plywood, they not only stated that their products are fully recyclable but also, that one could even eat their thin plywood products as they meet the European “safety for toys” standard. (Eskelinen, 2018, p.60, 71)
Are glues, used in plywood, safe?
A questionable component of plywood regarding health are the mostly used Urea formaldehyde (UF) glues.
These glues were invented and first used in Germany in the 1930s. They were much cheaper than other synthetic adhesives and did not require heating during laminating. Despite technical and economic advantages, UF glue had a number of negative environmental impacts, most notably in the emission of formaldehyde gases. (Wilk and Bisley, 2017, p.184)
Research and studies created political awareness, which led to the development of ‘low and ultra-low emission’ formulations since 1980. Further, the World Health Organisation formally declared formaldehyde to be a carcinogen in 2004 (WHO | Physical activity, 2017), causing the establishment of Emission classes by European Standard EN 13986. (Schwab, Marutzky and Meyer, 2012, p.17)
Although plywood can’t be understood as 100% safe, the UK Health and Safety Executive states: “the levels of free formaldehyde in boards made within the EU at levels of class E1 are thought to be insignificant. This is because at these levels the resin is fully reacted”. (no date)
German researchers of the Fraunhofer Institute for Wood Research predict: “For the next years, conventional adhesives with reduced or no formaldehyde emissions will maintain their dominating position. [...] The importance of alternative resins will increase”. (Schwab, Marutzky and Meyer, 2012, p.36)
Wood is a durable, UV and water resistant material. Although it shows ageing marks, like scraps, colour changes etc. it does still age beautifully.
In the book Wonderwood designer Elisa Strozyk points out: “Nowadays, a new product starts going downhill as soon as you remove the wrapping from its perfect finish. It gets scratched, chipped, and so on. But wood does not lose its beauty. It doesn’t decrease in value. In fact, it becomes more valuable with time.” (Glasner and Ott, 2013, p. 235)
The naturally occurring patina is valued by designers and users as it gives the piece character and tells a story. Therefore wooden objects are commonly appreciated as long lasting pieces that endure generations.