The British Isles were once covered in dense forest, but as population grew the forests receded until in the 1930s only 5% of British soil was woodland. Thanks to forestry efforts coverage has doubled since then, but still falls far short of the European average of 44%. Despite this relative lack of trees, the UK is one of the biggest users and importers of wood in the world, consuming about 10 million cubic metres of timber a year, much of it in the construction sector. There are many materials available for use in the modern world but wood remains fundamental; composed mostly of carbon from the air, it’s 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. Only 20% of timber used in the UK is grown domestically, with the rest imported from overseas, often from countries with dubious environmental controls. It’s estimated that in 2013 UK imports accounted for almost a million cubic metres of illegal timber.
Globally, timber demand is on the rise as builders seek to move away from polluting materials like steel and concrete, biomass power gains traction as an alternative to coal, and distance shipping creates huge demand for disposable pallets and packaging. Meanwhile the once-great tropical rainforests continue to shrink and climate disruption, disease, and wildfires threaten managed forests across the globe.
Wood recycling has undergone a massive boom in the UK, from less than 2% of wood waste in 1990 to more than 80% in 2020, but 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.