It could be argued that one of the most largely overlooked renewable resources available to us is wood.
Perhaps it’s because it’s so plentiful that we take it for granted. Walk outside and look around at all the wood available. From the trees to the buildings, wood is everywhere.
By definition, a renewable resource naturally restores itself, making itself constantly available without human or other outside influences. While other natural resources such as coal or petroleum gas can become depleted, wood continues to naturally replenish itself again and again.
Yet, in 2017, 12.1 million tons of wood were tossed into landfills in the U.S. Discarded wood includes everything from furniture to pallets, from scrap lumber to yard trimmings. But it is the construction and demolition of buildings that generate over a quarter of the wood waste in landfills.
As organic matter like wood fills up landfills, it generates methane, a greenhouse gas, irreparably harming the environment. As we all seek to do our part to lighten the landfills, you may be asking, “Can you recycle wood?”
Can you recycle wood?
The short answer is yes, but the reality is slightly more complicated than that.
Recyclable resources are ones that can be used again and again, but require a process (either from humans or nature) to prepare it for re-use. So while you can’t put wood waste curbside with your other recyclables, if brought to a facility that specializes in wood recycling, it can be recycled.
Rather than allow wood to become a sadly wasted resource, these facilities grind clean wood down to a size that can be useful to others. Usually, this means they will turn it into wood chips and mulch (often used in landscaping), but wood can become other things, too, including sawdust (for animal bedding), plywood, and particleboard.
Just remember that, as with any recycling center, wood recycling criteria varies from processor to processor.
Generally, they only accept wood that is free of contaminants like leaves, plants, dirt, rock, concrete, plastic, and metal that can damage their equipment. Some, on the other hand, may accept them and simply charge more for performing the separation.
Different Types of Wood Recycling
Because the recycling stream is largely meant to be clean and residue-free, only untreated wood is suitable for recycling. You should avoid trying to recycle these types of woods:
- Treated wood
- Lacquered or stained wood
- Painted wood
- Wood otherwise contaminated with chemicals
While most wooden furniture cannot be recycled (because it usually falls into these categories),
clean wood like timber, stumps, and limbs are perfect for recycling. Other wood waste that can be recycled includes:
- Yard waste: brush, roots, wood shavings, pruned branches, sawed lumber, whole trees from your yard, and Christmas trees
- Untreated wood: wood trim, used lumber, pallets used for shipping, and wood debris from construction and demolition
How to Use (and Reuse) Recycled Wood
You can recycle wood without ever bringing it to a wood recycling facility. Here are some of the best ways to recycle your wood waste:
1. Add it to compost.
Adding untreated wood or yard scraps that provide the needed carbon-rich material to create excellent nutrient-loaded compost.
2. Turn it into mulch or wood chips.
You can chop up untreated wood or tree branches into mulch and add it to your garden, or grind it down into animal bedding for stables or small cages. Just be sure to cut it outdoors and wear protective gear when you do.
3. Repurpose it.
There are also endless ways to upcycle wood, including refashioning it into new furniture or other home goods. Creativity is the limit when it comes to broken furniture, shipping pallets, or fence panels that can also be reused and repurposed into craft projects.
4. Donate it.
If you have leftover or gently used construction materials from home improvement projects, you can donate them to your local Habitat for Humanity ReStore or to your local high school’s woodshop.
How to Dispose of Wood that Cannot Be Recycled
To properly dispose of wood that cannot be reused or recycled due to the use of chemicals, particularly, you should take it to your local landfill.
The wood used in construction projects from the 20th century is at a risk of toxic metals now banned, such as lead and chromated copper arsenate (CCA) which contains arsenic.
Burning treated, painted, or varnished wood is dangerous. The danger comes from the release of toxic chemicals when heated. For this reason, you should never burn treated wood in a fireplace or fire pit.
How to Dispose of Wood that Can Be Recycled
If you don’t know the location of a wood recycling center local to you, visit Reusewood.org. Be sure to call ahead to ensure they’re open and any requirements.
Some facilities may even pick up your wood waste, but others will require a drop-off. Ensure your wood is recycled with ease by preparing it. Sand off the paint and remove metal materials before dropping it off.
How to Dispose of Wood that Can Be Composted
Many cities offer curbside yard waste collection services, but the requirements vary by city, so be sure to check with your local waste management company.
They may provide you a yard waste-specific recycling bin you can put yard waste and compost in. They might also require you to cut your tree branches to a specific size. If your city doesn’t offer curbside pickup, your town may still have a compost facility where you can drop off your yard waste.
Effective Ways to Reduce Wood Waste
Trying to get rid of large objects in an ethically sustainable way can be stressful. Eliminate stress at the source. Here are some ways to reduce wood waste from the start.
For starters, use woods that naturally resist rot (such as redwood, cedar, or white oak) for your next home improvement or gardening project, eliminating the need for treated wood.
Perform proper maintenance of wood products by keeping joints and cracks sealed against moisture and repaired when needed.
Use salvaged or recycled wood for your home projects when possible.
Purchase higher quality wood products that can be repaired and will not need to be discarded or replaced. Choose certified wood that is harvested from sustainably managed forests.
Download Our Free Guide to Sustainable Living.
From reducing waste to recycling and upcycling, our e-book shows simple ways to make choices you can feel good about.