Giving Unwanted Wood Another Useful Life
As an environmentally conscious interior designer, I’m always looking for ways to incorporate sustainable practices into my projects, from sourcing local products and choosing eco-friendly materials for furniture, flooring and rugs, to picking ‘healthier’ finishes with low volatile organic compounds and breathing life into old items like chairs by having them reupholstered or creating a bathroom vanity out of an unused desk. The latter is probably my favourite thing to do – there’s nothing quite like taking unwanted household possessions (whether my clients’ or found at a vintage store) and transforming them into something new.
I’m obviously just one of many who want to help the planet. And countless others are making a much greater positive environmental impact. One such person is Heather Jeffery, the brainchild behind Re4m – the only known recycling design firm in Ottawa. Pronounced ‘reform,’ the company designs and manufactures custom furnishings, fixtures and displays using unwanted building materials, including wood scraps, that have been rescued and otherwise would end up in landfills. Jeffery, who is also the lead fabricator, began her upcycling business in 2016, while working as a graphic designer at a local retail store.
It was there that she had an “environmental revelation,” seeing an opportunity to reduce the amount of commercial waste after witnessing her employer toss outdated but still usable display racks into a dumpster. She brought them home and armed with a jigsaw and hacksaw created eight unique lightboxes, harkening back to her days as an industrial design student at Carleton University when she’d upcycle commonly thrown out items to furnish her apartment. Now, six years later, Re4m operates out of a 2,000-square-foot workshop with dozens of machinery and tools. The company’s client list is long (and expanding), with Jeffery and her team primarily working with businesses in Ottawa’s food and hospitality, professional services, events and decor, retail, education and theatre arts industries.
On the other side of the country, University of British Columbia professor and chemical engineer Orlando Rojas and his colleagues have invented a treatment process that can turn old pieces of wood, timber byproducts, including shavings and sawdust, and even damaged and decayed wood destined for landfills into a high-performance structural building material that’s lightweight yet five times stronger than natural wood.
What’s more, the treatment process can be repeatedly applied to the new densely packed material to extend its life cycle. In a peer-reviewed research paper published in May in international journal Nature, Rojas and his team describe the process. It involves dissolving a glue-like component inside plant cell walls, known as lignin, with a substance called dimethylacetamide in the presence of lithium chloride to expose tiny fibres also found in the cell walls. When two pieces of wood treated in this way are brought together, the fibres bind to create what the researchers call a “healed” piece of wood.
This new material no longer looks like wood but tests show it is more resistant to breaking than some metals like steel and it’s also resistant to organic solvents. However, “healed wood” is not without its limitations. It will lose some of its strength if submerged in water, which means it’s only suitable for indoor uses. Regardless, if it’s financially feasible to scale up the process to an industrial level, the “healed” material has the potential to create a truly circular economy with wood.
Clare Tattersall is an interior designer and decorator in Toronto, and the editor of Canada’s floor covering magazine, Coverings.