The British Isles were once covered in dense forest, but a growing population and a fuel-hungry economy depleted the forests until by 1900 only 5% of British soil was woodland, compared to the European average of 44%. Thanks to forestry efforts coverage has doubled since then, but still falls far short of the government target of 17-19% by 2050.
Despite this lack of trees the UK demand for wood is stronger than ever, and in 2020 we imported about 48 million cubic metres of wood products (80% of our total consumption), making us one of the biggest importers of wood in the world. About 22% of this was timber and panels for use in the construction industry.
Not only does transporting this much wood around the world create substantial emissions, but imported wood is more likely to be a product of deforestation. It’s estimated that around a million cubic metres of illegal timber enter the UK each year.
Composed mostly of carbon from the air, wood is sturdy, easy to work, can be burned for energy, and requires only water, soil and sunlight to create, making it cheaper than most alternatives both economically and environmentally.
Because of this, wood is having something of a renaissance; new technologies like cross-laminated timber allow wood to take the place of carbon-intensive steel and concrete in modern buildings, wood-based biomass has become a key component of energy production, the global shipping industry relies on wooden pallets and packaging, and a host of organisations now offer carbon ‘offsets’ in the form of newly planted trees. Wood recycling has also undergone a massive boom in the UK, from less than 2% of wood waste in 1990 to more than 80% in 2020, thanks to growth in our biomass and composite panel industries.
Despite all of this the once-great tropical rainforests continue to shrink, and climate disruption, disease, and wildfires threaten managed forests across the globe. With many reuse opportunities being missed and around half a million tonnes of wood landfilled every year, the wood recycling story is far from over.