Thursday, 28 January 2016

Which is the more sustainable building material - wood or steel? MYTH #3

According to certain “studies,” wood claims a smaller environmental footprint than any other major building material. However, a closer look at the facts reveals some significant inconsistencies with that claim.

This is week 3 of 4 where we will feature a myth about the sustainability of wood vs. steel. See here for past 2 myths #1 and #2.

MYTH: Wood is more sustainable than steel because wood construction products store carbon. 

REALITY: Carbon storage for construction products is temporary, only shifting impacts to future generations. 
  • Carbon is sequestered in the fiber of trees, but that does not mean that wood buildings become large reservoirs of carbon that is stored indefinitely. Upon harvesting, the unused root and leaf systems immediately return their CO2 to the atmosphere by decay. For wood products, the reality is that carbon storage is also temporary and it is released back into the atmosphere at the end of the wood building’s life either by the demolition and subsequent decay of the wood or by incineration. 
  • Ann Ingerson of The Wilderness Society states: “As a result of wood waste and decomposition, the carbon stored long-term in harvested wood products may be a small proportion of that originally stored in the standing trees―across the United States, approximately 1 percent may remain in products in use and 13 percent in landfills at 100 years post-harvest.”(1)
If you want to learn about the other myths, you can download the Steel Market Development Institute's Fact Sheet to learn more.

(1) Ingerson, Ann, “Carbon Storage Potential of Harvested Wood: Summary and Policy Implications,” The Wilderness Society, October 23, 2010, p. 1.

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