Waste wood
in the UK

Renewable but not infinite

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.

Where does wood waste come from?

In 2020 the UK generated around 4.5 million tonnes of waste wood. This wood comes from a number of different sectors, including construction, demolition, manufacturing and wood processing. In addition, households produce huge quantities of waste wood that end up at local Council-run recycling centres and of course, waste pallets by the million and a large quantity of wooden packaging waste are produced right across every sector of the economy.

Wood waste origins (Tolvik 2011)

Where does waste wood go?

Until quite recently, most of this ended up in landfill – a shameful way of dealing with a potentially valuable resource, where it just rots and releases methane and other gasses that contribute to climate change. Thankfully over the last few years things have changed and in 2020 around 4 million tonnes of waste wood was recycled.

The best thing that can happen to waste wood (like any resource) is that it is reused and Community Wood Recycling has pioneered the reuse of waste timber; visit any of our enterprises and see the range of quality wood on sale for DIY/building projects, all rescued from the waste stream.

Wood waste end markets

However, the majority (around 65%) of wood that is diverted by what we call the high-volume wood recycling industry is not reused, but chipped and burnt in power stations to produce low-carbon electricity.

A lot of it (around 26%) is used in the manufacture of composite sheet materials such as MDF, chipboard and OSB.

Most of the remainder (9%) is used for animal bedding or for landscape surfaces.

Whilst all these uses are much better than landfill and the wood recycling industry has played a crucial part in ensuring that we divert waste from landfill, ideally, much more waste timber would be sorted and any reusable wood separated and not chipped.

Sources and further reading

History of Britain’s forests and woodlands: 100 years of the Forestry Commission (Countryfile, 2019) https://www.countryfile.com/wildlife/trees-plants/history-of-britains-forests-and-woodlands-celebrating-100-years-of-the-forestry-commission/

Wood waste: A short review of recent research (Defra, 2012) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/82571/consult-wood-waste-researchreview-20120731.pdf

UK Wood Production and Trade – 2020 Provisional Figures (The Research Agency of the Forestry Commission, 2021) https://www.forestresearch.gov.uk/documents/8032/ukwpt21.pdf

How much illegal timber gets into the UK? (The Guardian, 2014) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/live/2014/jul/31/how-much-illegal-timber-gets-into-the-uk

Legality assessment of timber and paper products in the UK (Chatham House, 2014)| https://forestgovernance.chathamhouse.org/countries/united-kingdom

How we help the environment by reusing wood