Urban Wood Destined for More than Landfills

By: Clare Tattersall

This past winter has been particularly harsh on the tree that resides in my home’s backyard. Strong storm winds and heavy snow battered our beloved maple, causing several limbs to crack and fall. It saddens me to say the tree that has provided so much shade in summer and served as a safe haven for the many birds that have nested in its branches is most certainly nearing the end of its life. With each passing year, the trunk weeps more and its crown has become increasingly sparse, with some branches now completely bare year-round. Soon it will be time to have it removed and while it gives me solace that another will be planted in its place to help maintain Toronto’s tree canopy, I have wondered what will come of its wood. Until now.

In many cases, ‘urban wood’ from trees that die of old age, storm damage, diseases and pest infestations in Canada’s cities is considered waste and its disposal is borne by the homeowner or community. Toronto alone estimates the total cost to all private property owners for removing and disposing trees is between $100 and $200 million annually. The municipality sees upwards of 20,000 trees taken down each year. However, city trees, which often produce lumber with twisted and unusual patterns in their grain due to the different stresses they face than forest trees, don’t have to be destined for landfill. A movement is afoot that encourages the salvaging, re-use and creation of wood products that recognize the value and importance of urban trees even after they’re dead.

Urban Tree Salvage is but one Toronto-area company utilizing discarded trees to reduce waste from entering landfills. Led by husband and wife artisan team Sean and Melissa Gorham, the family owned and operated business creates environmentally conscious custom wood furniture and accessories from locally salvaged logs for residential and commercial use. Products include dining, coffee, side and console tables, home desks, benches, and charcuterie boards.

Although there are now similar-type companies, Urban Tree Salvage was the first in the country to rescue and transform urban wood waste at the time of its founding almost 20 years ago. As such, it has become the largest municipal log salvaging operation, which was no easy feat since utilizing reclaimed wood was a new concept in 2004.

The company carved out a place for this new lumber economy two years after its launch when it was called upon by developers to assist in diverting wood beams from the 1830s-built Queen’s Wharf that were discovered during site excavation for a new condominium building. Hundreds of dump trucks later, equating to hundreds of thousands of board feet of lumber, Urban Tree Salvage ramped up manufacturing and began producing reclaimed lumber from these historic first growth timber for both local and national wood products manufacturers. In the ensuing years, the company expanded and transitioned from a solely reclamation operation to focus on its furniture creations, which continue to be made from wood grown, harvested and processed in Ontario.

Newer to the urban wood salvaging scene is Sawmill Sid Inc. Also based in the Toronto-area, the family-owned business first became aware of the wood waste problem 10 years ago in 2013, at a city-run roundtable discussion for urban wood utilization. Since then, the company has committed to repurposing wood from trees that would typically be wood chipped, mulched or grinded and sent to dumps. This wood is sawmilled and then made into products like beams, flooring, furniture and decorative accessories, giving life back to the trees. At the same time, by preventing the wood from being used for low value applications like mulch, Sawmill Sid is stopping the carbon sequestered in the wood from re-entering the atmosphere and contributing to climate change, effectively creating a win-win scenario for the urban wood salvage cause.

There are now countless other urban wood salvaging companies and they’re not limited to Toronto. From Van Urban Timber in Vancouver, to Kannwood Timberworks in Saskatchewan and Matpel in Quebec, Canadian homeowners like me can rest assure their trees will become more than just wood chips at the end of their useful ‘first’ life.

Clare Tattersall is an interior designer and decorator in Toronto, and the editor of Canada’s floor covering magazine, Coverings.

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