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The Telegraph: Eco living: it's time to stop wasting wood



Paul Page has heated his Seventies Norfolk bungalow completely free for three years, and he's very unhappy about it. He heats his home with a "biomass" – wood-powered – boiler and, as a renewable-energy expert working with the building trade, has plenty of wood to keep his radiators hot and his rooms toasty for as long as he likes.


But Paul's free heating is a symptom of how scandalously we waste wood in this country.


"The amount of wood that goes to waste in this country is criminal, shocking. If people knew the truth they would be outraged," says Paul. Every day, hundreds of tons of good-quality, untreated pine, oak, cedar and other wood are chucked away, mostly by the construction, demolition and packaging industries. Annually we throw away about 4.6 million tons of wood, and while some of it is low grade, paint or chemically treated and good for little, nearly 1.5 million tons is clean, solid, untreated wood, according to a recent Government report.


Paul is so passionate about the need to find uses for waste wood that he opens his home every weekend to show anyone who is interested how he turns wood destined for the skip into chairs, cabinets, bird boxes and, if all else fails, into fuel to heat his home. "Construction workers, under pressure to save costs, just chuck wood into skips, where it is crushed and pretty much unusable for anything but chipping or kindling," says Paul.


While much has been achieved in recent years to prevent wood going to landfill, each year about 750,000 tons ends up buried. The fate of a further half a million tons is, according to the Government, "unknown" and probably illegally burnt in the open air or siphoned off for use in wood-burning stoves. Much is chipped and sent to Belgian and German biomass power stations to keep our European neighbours warm, a scenario that defies logic.


While burning waste wood for heating is better than burying it, it would be far better to save much more of the reusable wood, says Richard Mehmed, who runs an award-winning community wood-recycling scheme. The scheme aims to educate construction workers not simply to "skip" wood, but to sort it on site and protect solid, untreated wood from being broken, crushed or ruined by being exposed to the elements for too long. "Huge volumes of potentially usable wood, from transport pallets, scaffolding and offcuts from fittings is simply being chipped and burnt. As well as making use of a valuable resource, recycling and reusing the wood takes pressure off virgin forests," he says.


Richard started his first recycling enterprise in Brighton after being shocked when a construction company offered him some plywood sheets so he could make his daughter a doll's house. "There were about 100 pristine plywood sheets that were just all going to be chucked into a skip," he says.


From one community wood centre, Richard's scheme has spread to 25 not-for-profit recycled-timber enterprises throughout the country, supplying wood for DIY projects and to furniture makers. Richard says home owners, when offering building jobs for tender, should ask contractors what their wood waste policy is. "If they don't have one, it's down to home owners to ask that all solid reusable wood be salvaged and taken to a community wood recycling centre."


Furniture maker Chris Knipe uses pine pallet bearers and pallet board from community wood enterprises to make inexpensive kitchen tables. "The wood, once dried out, is perfectly good for reuse," he says. "The pallet bearers are scored with grooves of between half an inch and an inch deep, to provide a structure for the pallets to rest on," says Chris. "A lot of construction firms feel these grooves make the wood useless but I fill the grooves with another type of wood, like oak, and it creates a stripe all the way up the table leg, which really adds character to the piece."