Local authorities and other tree managers generate huge amounts of waste wood, which is becoming increasingly costly to dispose of. There are growing markets for waste wood products, particularly biomass fuel, but so far the problem has been linking the two together.
But a new Glasgow company believes that by taking on the responsibility for turning waste wood into woodchip, firewood and quality timber, it will not only help lower the region's carbon footprint but will also create sustainable training and job opportunities.
Sustainable Wood Solutions (SWS) was established last year by South African-born ex-restaurateur and cabinet maker Bruce MacLeod and former Forestry Commission and Glasgow City Council woodland officer Paul Cookson. "Together, we understand the whole chain," says Cookson, who was eager to put into practice a plan to help the city help itself.
"Glasgow has some fantastic woodlands, though a lot is over-mature," he notes. "They could be productive and have high amenity value. The wood supply could serve as a revenue stream to fund the woodlands' management when current funding dries up. Our specialism is sourcing and grading the wood then bringing in partners to put it to use."
MacLeod adds: "Glasgow City Council has about 1,300ha of woodland, of which about 20 per cent is managed - a figure that will grow. That already generates a high quantity of wood - about 8,000 tonnes a year." Currently, most of that is put to landfill, he says. "At the moment, the council has no end user for it."
Yet there is a market within the council itself, which is aiming to boost its environmental credentials, he explains. "According to its own report two years ago, the council could save £600,000 a year just on energy [by switching to biomass]," says MacLeod.
"Instead, it's paying £60,000 to £70,000 a year to dump the wood. It's a no-brainer. As things stand though, one part of the council is taking the trees down, while another is investing in biomass, but the two don't talk to each other. And their arboricultural contractors aren't in the business of marketing a product. We will bridge that gap."
Cookson notes: "We partner local authorities and social enterprises, filling the space between them. They would face high start-up costs and not have enough volume to make it work." The question of volume has led the firm to work with other local authorities in the wider Strathclyde area. "We need about 20,000 tonnes of wood a year to make it viable," says MacLeod.
While the company is developing a variety of markets for wood (see box), it is as biomass fuel that Cookson and MacLeod see greatest potential. "The UK is committed to a fivefold increase in energy from renewable sources by 2020, from six per cent to 32 per cent, and biomass will be a key part of that," says Cookson. "Most energy used in the UK is for heat. That's a market we are well placed to tap into."
At one contractor's yard, which MacLeod describes as "relatively small", 2,500 tonnes of timber is stored. "You will find similar yards at other local authorities, forestry bodies and arboriculture firms," Cookson maintains.
After 18 months of air drying, the timber's moisture content is reduced to 20 to 30 per cent, when it can be turned into biomass chips of grades G30-G150. "Grading is the customer's guarantee that supply will meet standards," says MacLeod. "This has been the problem with biomass. Ex-palette wood full of nails is not biomass, it's incinerator material. Biomass boilers are very sensitive. That's why you have backups. But the issue isn't the technology, it's the input quality."
He adds that by thinking big, the company can ensure both quality and quantity. "We've even heard stories of councils installing biomass boilers and then having to take them out because of supply problems. So we want to give confidence to the market that we can supply a high-quality biomass product and build the brand around that."
While waiting to secure a contract with the council, SWS is also pursuing an arrangement with a homeless charity, whose biomass project had been mothballed due to technical and supply issues.
A council representative confirmed that a 400kW biomass boiler has been commissioned for the parks department's Queen's Park plant nursery. But he adds: "Unfortunately, some other sites where it was felt a biomass fuel source would be suitable presented access and cost problems."
Another option the firm is exploring is the supply of firewood for stoves. "There is a growing market for wood stoves - it's doubled in the past few years," notes Cookson. Currently, firewood fetches around £30 a tonne. MacLeod adds: "It comes down to price relative to other forms of domestic heating. Higher energy prices will drive it, and they won't come down again. Part of our business mantra is that it has to make financial sense - it has to produce something of value for which there's a market."
For SWS, economic and environmental sustainability go together. But the company also has social aims and in July was awarded £20,000 in start-up capital from the Scottish Government's Social Entrepreneurs Fund. As a "community interest company", it is bound to return 65 per cent of profits back into the community. It does this by working with existing social enterprises to develop training and apprenticeships. The company's business plan foresees 10 employees within three years.
"As a biomass supplier we have competitors, but our unique selling point is we are a social organisation," says MacLeod. "We will need two or three people just to manage the sawn timber. They could be the long-term unemployed. We can use social organisations as gatekeepers."
This is how such social enterprises will have to operate in the coming years, he believes. "Open-ended grant funding for social enterprises isn't there any more. Local authorities and central government are asking: 'Is it self-sustaining?' They will only fund projects for a set amount of time. They want results, and that means full-time jobs."
MacLeod adds: "For social and green projects, the happy days are gone. Yet there are more funding sources available to us than to a local authority. They are cash-strapped and need an instant return. This will take two or three years to pay back. But for them the savings in fuel costs alone will be around 60 per cent."
The business partners stress that there is nothing unique about Glasgow as a base for their operation. Cookson insists: "This could be in every town and city in Britain."
TAPPING INTO TIMBER
Most waste wood is good only for fuel, but SWS sees opportunities for turning some into quality timber. "Around 15 to 20 per cent of wood can be put to higher value uses," says Cookson. "The skills in grading the value of timber have been lost."
As with biomass, the outcome is environmentally beneficial as well as economically sound, he believes. "It has similar credentials to locally produced food. In the public sector in particular, architects will specify it, but the market is constricted by lack of supply."
MacLeod adds: "Instead, they import sustainable timber, which costs more and comes with a larger carbon footprint. This is a lot more environmentally friendly."
The company recently landed its most prestigious order when it was asked to supply oak floorboards to a flooring contractor for a project in Stirling Castle. "We had to scrounge the wood," MacLeod admits. It then had to be "quarter sawn", cut diagonally inwards from the trunk edge to the centre, rather than conventionally "plainsawn", sliced from top to bottom.
"It's the old way of doing it, but no one does it any more," says Cookson. "Though you use a third less of the tree, so it's perhaps not very sustainable."
According to Historic Scotland's project architect Ruth Vaughan: "They give you extra stability and are less prone to cupping, especially the wider sections."
The wood will be used in the upper galleries of the castle's Royal Palace, which is being restored to its original 16th century state following extensive research.