By Sakshi Udavant for Next City. Broadcast version by Edwin J. Viera for New York News Connection reporting for the Solutions Journalism Network-Public News Service Collaboration.
Urban areas in US cities are estimated to lose an average of 36 million trees every year. This results in economic losses of up to $786 million and risks having an adverse impact on already worsening climate change.
The worse part? Many of these trees are considered “waste” and sent off to landfills. “More wood from cities goes into landfills than is harvested from US National Forests,” says J. Morgan Grove, a research forester at Baltimore Field Station, USDA Forest Service. “40% of this wood can be reused for furniture, flooring, outdoor play areas, mulch, compost, soil improvements, bioenergy and even carbon sources for growing mushrooms.”
That’s what “reforestation hubs” are doing: Saving urban trees from heading to landfills by finding new ways to repurpose the wood. These wooden products can be sold to fund further tree plantations. This cycle reduces urban wood waste, saves money, helps increase forest cover, and most importantly, keeps carbon out of the environment.
“If we recycled all the trees that came down in US cities each year, roughly 20 million tons of carbon could be kept out of the atmosphere, equivalent to taking over four million gas-powered cars off the road for a year,” says Ben Christensen, CEO and co-founder of Cambium Carbon, a New York-based startup working on reforesting America by creating the aforementioned wood repurposing-reforesting cycle.
Reforestation Hub, an initiative by The Nature Conservancy (a global environmental organization) and American Forests (a US-based forest conservation nonprofit), estimates up to 133 million acres of formerly forested lands in the United States could be reforested, absorbing 333 million metric tons of carbon per year, which is equivalent to keeping 72 million cars off the road. That’s why the organization calls it “a low-tech, scalable and proven solution to climate change.”
Creating a Circular Economy
Organizations like Cambium Carbon play a huge role in making this circular economy possible. For instance, Cambium Carbon works at three critical points: 1) saving the trees from ending up in landfills when they’re first cut down or have fallen, 2) collaborating with millers and sawyers who can use the “wasted” wood, and 3) working with architects, builders and furniture brands who provide the market to incentivize salvage. This way, fallen urban trees go from being a “landfill filler” to a valuable commodity that creates resources for increasing the declining forest cover in US cities.
The organization claims to have diverted more than 45 tons of wood from landfills, moving about 291,000 board feet of wood or roughly 489 tons of finished product. They’re now starting a new furniture line with Sabai Design, a sustainable furniture brand in Philadelphia, and planting new trees with the Sacramento Tree Foundation and the Baltimore Tree Trust. Their goal is to plant one billion new trees across the U.S. by 2030, the team mentioned in an interview with Next Pittsburgh.
Cambium Carbon is not alone. Other organizations like Cities4Forests and the Arbor Day Foundation are working with local officials to create the nation’s first reforestation hubs by 2022 through a TNC Natural Climate Change Solutions Accelerator Grant.
Is the Solution Worth the Costs?
While collecting fallen trees from urban spaces and using them to make locally-sold wooden products sounds like the perfect idea to reduce wastage and make supply chains more sustainable, all of this is easier said than done.
One drawback is that the barriers and costs of these alternative wood waste programs may outweigh the benefits, says Melissa McHale, associate professor of Urban Ecology and Sustainability, UBC Faculty of Forestry. “Many cities lack the space to store, sort and process the wood waste, and the cost of creating a space like this, in terms of dollars and time, is prohibitive,” says McHale, who also served on the leadership team for the United States Forest Service’s Denver Urban Field Station (USFS DUFS). “Many cities do not have the ability to maintain and remove all of their problem or dead trees and depend on private companies to do so. Private companies, especially the smaller businesses, often do not have the time and equipment needed to remove a tree whole and transport it wherever it needs to go.”
Fortunately, several organizations are stepping up with resources and ideas to make the wood repurposing process more efficient. For instance, Reforestation Hub maps out “relatively low-cost and feasible options to restore forests.” The web-based tool highlights several key areas for affordable reforestation like large open patches within forests, croplands with challenging soils and post-burn landscapes. It also offers handy access to reforestation resources like links to find a professional forester, find your state’s urban and community tree coordinator and access published articles on cost-effective tree planting.
Beyond helping the planet for years to come, initiatives like these also support local communities. Cambium Carbon has created a national network of local producers and national buyers to purchase locally salvaged, locally milled wood, which further funds local tree planting. For example, the communal tables in the entrepreneurship hubs on Towson University’s campus are made of wood that would have otherwise gone to waste. Similarly, the trellis in the Visit Baltimore HQ office was made using “waste” now repurposed into what the team calls “Carbon Smart Wood.”
“It’s a big opportunity to put people first and to have projects that are not just good for the planet but are really good for communities,” CEO Ben Christensen said in an interview with the Arbor Day Foundation. “[We’re] creating systems that are helping to address problems like lack of employment and helping to support economic recovery coming out of COVID.”
Cambium Carbon has employed 25 workers while also creating additional employment and partnership opportunities for several local carpenters and woodworkers through their sales and inventory management platform, Traece. Since the wood is sourced, repurposed and sold locally, workers in the region find more projects (like working on the Towson University tables) and resources (companies buying the new wooden products) to generate revenue that they wouldn’t have access to if the fallen trees just went to a landfill.
Sakshi Udavant wrote this article for Next City.
Edwin is a reporter and producer in North Tonawanda, New York. He’s previously reported for the Niagara Gazette and the Ithaca Times. Edwin got an early start in radio interning for WBFO-88.7FM, NPR’s Buffalo affiliate. In 2018, he graduated from SUNY Buffalo State College with a B.A. in Journalism, and in 2022, graduated from Syracuse University with an M.S. in Communications.