business circular economy waste

Why doesn’t every town have a community wood store?

I’m working today from my attic office, which I built a couple of years ago when my children moved into separate bedrooms and I had to surrender my study. It has a desk made of offcut panels that were being given away by the DIY store. There’s an alcove bookshelf next to me which is clad with my neighbour’s old wood flooring. It’s held together with stripwood that was once part of an easel.

I should add that this is all cobbled together in a fashion that would not pass muster anywhere else in the house. It’s best not to look too closely – but I’m the only one who works up here and it suits me fine. I mention it because of the scrap wood factor. Wood can be reused in all sorts of ways.

Good quality wood is easily sanded down and refurbished, with lots of potential for making into new things – furniture, shelving, bird boxes, craft projects. As many interior decorators know, reclaimed wood has character that you don’t get with new wood. Lower quality wood can be chipped to make into board, or pressed into pellets for wood-fired heating systems. A lot of the random pieces of scrap wood I pick up get fed into rocket stove as firewood.

There are particular streams of waste wood that can be tapped into. One is scaffolding boards. In the interests of safety, they are retired well before they lose strength and sold on for other things. I’ve seen them used to make raised beds in gardening projects. A friend of ours runs Luton’s jazz bar, the The Bear Club, which he clad in old scaffolding boards to create the vibe of a 1930s speakeasy. Another waste stream is old pallets, and a friend who lives round the corner built his shed and half his furniture out of reclaimed pallet wood.

Where there’s a regular supply of wood like pallets or scaffolding, it’s easy enough to make a business out of it. What’s trickier is all the one-off lots of wood that are discarded, in all shapes and sizes, in other ways. That could be from refurbishment or from a building site, where materials are over-ordered as a matter of course and frequently discarded. It could be as simple as someone replacing an item of furniture. If it’s coming from households, a lot of wood ends up at the council tip, where it all goes in together and gets taken away for some unspecified processing that is likely to lose a lot of the reuse value.

This is where community wood recycling can make a difference. Local wood stores can pick up scrap wood and sort it for reuse and resale. Customers can call in and buy refurbished wood for their own projects. Many community wood stores also run training programmes, and make furniture or small wooden items for sale. Some are charities or run on a voluntary basis, some are social enterprises. They serve an important function in a circular economy, keeping wood out of the waste stream and re-using it. And of course, every project that uses reclaimed wood saves on trees being cut down, which multiplies the environmental benefits well beyond the issue of waste.

The National Community Wood Recycling Project is a umbrella organisation that supports wood stores across the UK. You can find your nearest one on their map, which in my case is in St Albans. I’d love to see one in Luton and there’s no reason why every town of a certain size shouldn’t have a wood store. Alongside a reuse mall and a remakery for repairs, a wood store would be part of the social infrastucture for local sustainability.

The idea of community wood stores comes from Brighton, where the first such store in the country opened in 1998. The Brighton & Hove Wood Recycling Project pioneered the model, and its founder went on to create the national network. If you’d like to support their work, they are currently running a crowdfunding campaign to pay for their relocation.

2 comments

  1. I have always used ‘waste wood’ for building projects, right back to when we bought our first house in 1980. Back then though, there were ‘reclamation yards’, where you could also get other items from demolition. However, it is ironic to me that just when the NCWRP was started in 2003, my best source of wood from a reclamation yard here in Sheffield, specialising in wood, closed down. When I ran out of old wood for my last major renovation, around 2008, I had to buy new, which was of much inferior quality. I discovered that wood from demolition was being chipped – hundred year old slow-growth Douglas fir of much much higher quality than anything new – but to reuse it you had to get all the old nails out and run the risk of blunting and even damaging tools if you missed any.
    For some reason, wood is not reclaimed any more, and reclamation yards just do hardware or ‘architectural salvage’, so it is good to see some sort of return to reusing wood as wood, rather than it just being chipped, burnt or simply thrown away.
    Another sad thing with wood is that my last source of old wood was rafters from a nearby attic conversion, where there was no attempt whatsoever to reuse any of the timber. Everything old stripped out and replaced with new.

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