Surely wood can be recycled, it’s made from trees isn’t it?
Yes you’re correct. Like all other plants, wood is a natural, organic material. This means that wood can be recycled in its normal state.
However, it’s what we do to the natural wood that determines whether the timber product can be recycled or not in the real world. Wood gets used by humans in many different ways, meaning it ends up in an assortment of shapes, sizes and conditions.
Treating wood, combining it with other materials and layering it with laminated sheets and membranes all add in extra complexity to the recycling process.
Knowing about wood recycling is important for the environment. The desire for timber is a large cause of global deforestation. If more wood got recycled, the world would be in a healthier state.
Let’s find out if which wood can be recycled and how to make sure your timber waste gets sent to the correct recycling facility.
Can wood be recycled?
Millions and millions of tonnes of wood waste gets thrown away in the UK each year. It would be extremely bad for the environment and natural world if all this wood waste gets sent to landfill.
This leads to the big question: is wood recyclable?
In general, yes wood can be recycled.
The benefit of recycling wood is that it can be reused and repurposed into secondary wood-based products, rather than cutting down more trees for their timber.
However, not all wood is the same and the term itself is used to describe a diverse and wide-ranging set of materials and items.
The main types of wood waste streams are:
- Softwood – made from coniferous trees e.g. fir, spruce, pine
- Hardwood – made from broadleaved trees e.g. oak, teak, mahogany
According to a 2012 government wood waste report, over 4 million tonnes of wood entered the waste stream in 2010. Just over half of this (56%) was solid waste from hardwood and softwood, 11% from chipboard and 9% MDF.
With different wood waste types, there are a few caveats that need to be taken into account when recycling.
A simpler way to categorise wood waste for recycling is treated versus untreated.
Generally, untreated wood is easily recyclable whereas treated wood is more difficult and may not be recyclable at all. However, if your wood has been treated with a natural eco friendly wood timber protector it will be ok.
Painted wood is also more difficult to recycle. There are more and more eco-friendly paints out there, but still, recycling centres may have different policies on painted timber.
Can you put wood in the recycle bin?
It would make it simpler to dispose of but wood is not normally accepted as part of your local council collection. This means that wood is not recyclable from curbside.
Even though it is a type of brown organic waste, wood needs to be sent to a specialist recycling facility.
For this reason, you shouldn’t put wood or timber into your green/food waste recycling bin. Depending on your council, this brown waste is often taken to an industrial composting facility.
A big, heavy chunk of timber isn’t going to break down any time soon. Even in an industrial composter! There’s a reason why solid wood is used in construction – it lasts a long time.
Wood needs its own specialist facility to be broken down sufficiently enough to reuse.
How to recycle timber?
If you can’t put wood into the recycling bin, what should you do with your timber waste?
The good news is that most recycling centres will accept wood waste to be recycled.
Here, you’ll be able to put your timber waste into the correct collection point. From here, it will then get sent on to a more specialist facility to be dealt with properly and hopefully recycled.
If you’re not sure where your nearest centre is, take a look at this government webpage.
There are other ways to recycle wood waste at home. For example, you might like to repurpose an unwanted pallet into an outdoor planter or create some simple furniture.
It is possible to compost some of your timber waste too but this needs to be chopped right down or in the form of wood shavings. Just like when composting coffee grounds, some brown waste is good but too much will cause an imbalance.
If you do go down this route, it’s vital that your wood is untreated – any stains, varnishes or plastic laminate coatings found on treated wood may cause damage to your compost pile and the surrounding natural environment.
How is wood recycled step by step?
From the main recycling centre, wood waste will be taken to a specialist recycling facility where it is sorted, separated and processed.
In simple terms, the wood gets put into a big, powerful shredder where it is chipped up into smaller chunks. The shredder breaks down the wood and chucks it out of the other end in a variety of more useable sizes.
A type of vibrating screen at the end of the shredder helps to separate the resulting wood based on its size. Any big chunks that make it through are recirculated to be chipped again.
The different sizes of chipped wood – small, medium and large – then determine how the wood is reused in the future.
Main uses for recycled wood
Now the wood has been broken down into more manageable and practical sizes, what is it used for?
Chipped up wood has a variety of secondary uses. Although you might not be able to recreate a large solid oak table, recycled wood can still be a useful material for a number of simple but important purposes.
Uses for recycled untreated wood include:
- Panelboard or chipboard
- Animal bedding – e.g. for horses, cows, chickens and cat litter
- Play areas
- Pathway coverings
- Burnt and used for energy – this goes for industrial and at home. If you have your own wood burning stove, you might be able to use your untreated wood in this
It’s important to note that treated wood has a more restricted recycling afterlife.
Treated wood that has been recycled can only be used for panelboard or chipboard manufacturing, or burned for energy production. This is still useful but much more limited.
Consider repurposing your wood before recycling it
As well as taking wood to a recycling centre, there are many other ways to deal with unwanted wood.
The first step before recycling from a sustainability point of view is reuse.
Reusing a product or material requires little to no energy input or processing. This is great for the environment and our natural woodlands. It may also save you from forking out and buying a brand new item.
Wood is the perfect material to reuse. I love this natural material and have managed to repurpose it to create a few new items in my home.
For example, instead of taking a few wooden pallets to the recycling centre, I decided to repurpose them into a good number of planters for the garden.
When I moved into my house originally, I found a few lengths of wood in the loft. They looked in decent condition and were good shapes, so I decided to sand them down, treat them naturally and created a couple of really nice wooden shelves.
My DIY skills are severely limited, but even I managed this simple job. It not only saved me a fair bit of money, but it gave the wood a new life rather than being chucked away. Very rewarding.
There’s also a good market out there for recycled wood and second-hand products.
People will happily pick up your wood waste and take it off your hands to reuse in their own way. Post it on one of the online marketplaces or your local community group and I bet it will be snapped up. You might even make a couple of quid.
However, sometimes you do run out of ideas or the wood has come to the end of its current life and you just want to get rid.
In this case, follow the steps and advise given above on how to recycle your wood and you’ll be doing your little bit for the environment.
If you liked that, you might find these posts interesting…
Ben is the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about more sustainable, environmentally friendly living in and around the home.
Alongside this website, I love spending time in the natural world, living a simple life and spending time with my young family (Murphy the dog!) I round up my thoughts and recent blogs on the Eco Life Newsletter.