Recycling Trees: Everybody Wins

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ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
When trees need to be cut down, there's far more to do with the wood than just haul it to the dump or make firewood.

Before the city of Hammond, Indiana, started a clever new
strategy for recycling the 400 trees it removed for
residents each year, the downed wood was hauled to city
landfills and left to rot. But when Lake County Solid Waste
Management District Executive Director Jeff Langbehn
visited the local Hoosier Sawmill in early 1997, he got to
talking with mill operators about a win-win deal for
everyone.

Now Hammond, located 33 miles southeast of
Chicago, Illinois, has found a way to use these fallen
trees–becoming a working template for cities across the
nation that are letting valuable resources go to waste.

The
old system cost the city in many ways: loss of landfill
space, loss of valuable wood, loss of clean air due to
methane gas produced by tree decay, and more than $100,000
a year in hauling and dumping fees.

With the new plan,
dubbed “Trees to Furniture,” the city takes the trees to
Hoosier Sawmill to be milled into usable lumber, rather
than hauling them to a landfill. The sawmill keeps 70% of
the wood for compensation, and the other 30% is transformed
into city picnic tables, park benches, garden sheds, and
more.

This delights city officials, who used to spend more
than S3.000 on picnic tables alone every year.

“This
project has taken on a life of its own,” says Langbehn.
“Everyone I’ve talked to is really pumped about it. We’re
taking natural resources that were being thrown away and
allowed to decay and turning them into useful products.”

Langbehn cites many benefits. Hammond saves thousands of
dollars on the dumping of trees, as well as on the building
of park fixtures. Less tree decay means less air-polluting
methane gas. And Hoosier Sawmill gets a ready source of
material at no cost, which it then sells to a local palate
company, thereby helping to preserve local jobs.

When
portable sawmill manufacturer Wood-Mizer Inc. got a glimpse
of Hammond’s progressive new plan, they thought it had
great potential for the city of Indianapolis. At 1,500,000
people (to Hammond’s population of 85,000) the greater
metropolitan area of Indianapolis will take a little more
organization than the Hammond venture. From public land
alone, the city takes down over 3,000 trees a year, most of
which end up as firewood or landfill fodder. Still,
coordinators hope to have “Trees to Furniture” running in
Indianapolis before the end of the summer.

The biggest goal
of the Indianapolis project is utilizing different species
of wood at the highest practical rates, according to Greg
Fennig, executive director of program coordinators for Keep
Indianapolis Beautiful (K.I.B.). So, for instance, less
marketable species of trees like mulberry and peach might
still be cut into firewood, but more valuable hardwoods
like cherry, walnut, and oak would be milled for usable
lumber. “I like firewood,” says Fennig. “But people should
realize that if it’s a good quality wood, there are many
other uses.”

Various uses for the new wood supply were
imagined at a recent meeting of key project players, hosted
by Wood-Mizer, Inc. Besides utilizing it for city
construction of park benches, picnic tables, and sawdust to
replace salt on city streets, valuable hardwood could be
sold to more than 500 furniture makers in the state,
donated to vocational schools, to the Boy Scouts for
various building projects, or to Habitat for Humanity, a
nonprofit low-income housing organization.

Fennig and other
K.I.B. organizers believe the program is just innovative
enough that they may be able to persuade their
well-respected parent organization, Keep America Beautiful,
to act as a catalyst in spreading it to cities across the
nation.

Says Fennig, “We anticipate that it’ll go over
really well. It really strengthens the relationship between
local governments and private sector folks.”