This is a guide outlining whether wood is more sustainable than plastic, and vice versa.
We compare some of the key factors involved in the production, usage and waste management of each.
Summary – Is Wood More Sustainable Than Plastic?
Ultimately, whether wood is more sustainable than plastic depends on the application it is being used for, and how it’s sourced, produced and managed on a product or item case by case basis.
For example, they might be used as raw or treated building materials, or they may be further fabricated to make furniture and other processed items
But, general sustainability consideration for wood vs plastic might be:
1. Sourcing Of Materials – wood comes from a natural and renewable resource, which can also be sourced from sustainably managed stock trees (FSC certification is one example of a sustainably sourced certification). Plastic on the other hand is a synthetic material sourced from fossil fuel feed stock
2. Production – wood may come out ahead in several environmental indicators (such as energy consumption and carbon footprint) compared to plastic in the production stage. Although, there may be some indicators where plastic is more eco friendly in the production process depending on the wood it is being compared to
3. Transport and Delivery – plastic may have a lesser eco footprint when it comes to transport and delivery because it tends to be a far lighter material (comparing the weight of a hard plastic item to a solid wood or timber item)
4. Waste Management – wood is an organic material that has greater potential for re-use and recycling compared to most plastics
5. Pollution – wood is biodegradable and when it becomes waste, it has less potential to create problems associated with pollution. Plastic is not biodegradable, takes a long time to break down, and causes other issues in the environment as mismanaged waste
Overall, wood looks like the more sustainable material. However, finished wood products with other materials added like metal and plastic trimming, glues, varnishes etc., have a significantly higher eco footprint [than just wood or timber by itself] (sustainability.stackexchange.com)
Note that wood pulp is also used for the production of paper, which we compared to plastic in this guide. Paper has a different sustainability footprint to raw wood, as paper mills are known to not be very eco friendly
Examples Of Products With Wood & Plastic Options
Furniture (chair, bed, table, bench, etc.)
Flooring (timber flooring vs vinyl flooring made from PVC)
Wood vs Plastic: Comparison
Sourcing Of Materials – wood comes from trees, which are a renewable natural resource. Trees can be sustainably grown and managed as tree stock.
Plastic comes from natural gas and crude oil non renewable fossil fuel feedstock.
Production – Wood can be fairly energy efficient in production compared to metal and plastic. Most of the energy used in timber production especially comes in drying the timber (fwpa.com.au).
Materials such as concrete, plastic or aluminium, require a lot of energy from fossil fuels to produce compared to timber (reuters.com).
Trees also absorb carbon. In addition, there is very little waste when wooden products are made, whether it’s floorboards, furniture, doors, or something else entirely. Any residual chippings can be burned as an energy source, or used as sawdust during manufacture (greenne.com)
Delivery & Transport – wood is usually heavier than plastic, which might make delivering and transporting it more expensive, and use more fuel and have a higher carbon footprint. It may also be less space efficient.
Usage – it would be interesting to compare the eco impact of the U value or insulation value of timber vs uPVC vs aluminum window frames. But, we couldn’t find any exact figures.
It is noted though that the cellular makeup of wood means that it naturally retains heat more effectively than other materials (greenne.com)
Waste Management & Recycling – [Timber mills make use of] The entire tree … Bark is removed and used for mulch and decorative landscaping. First cuts and unusable board feet are recovered or culled for use in engineered wood products. Board ends are cut up and sold as hobby wood. Sawdust and shavings are packaged for animal bedding. In some mills, scrap wood is even used to produce energy or steam to keep the mill and kilns running (ironwoods.com).
The incineration of timber for energy production can be regarded as CO2 neutral (sustainability.stackexchange.com).
In addition, wood is usually able to be upcycled, salvaged, and reclaimed easily from timber mills (used for secondary applications such as mulching and used for landscaping for example, or, off cuts can be used for other uses). Using recycled wood in construction and then burning it as fuel could lead to a reduction in carbon emissions by up to 135 million tonnes a year (reuters.com).
Of the approximate 70m tons of wood sent to landfill annually, the US government estimates 30m tons of it could have been reused [and there is potential to reclaim more wood from house remodelling and demolition than what we currently do] (theguardian.com).
Plastic can be incinerated, but plastic also usually has a low recycling rate (as low as 9% of total plastic is recycled in some major countries).
Pollution – plastic pollution (in the ocean and on land in soil and rivers) is currently a far bigger issue than pollution from wood or timber.
Impact On Humans – the potential negative impact of plastic on humans and human health is more significant than wood (additives in plastic like BPA for example is one concern). Micro plastics in the air indoors that humans may inhale are also more closely linked to plastic furniture and textiles.
Impact On Wild Life & Environment – plastic, via ingestion and entanglement and leaching of chemicals, probably has a worser impact on wild life than wood.
Although, you have to make sure wood doesn’t come from ‘illegal logging or irresponsible deforestation’ (reuters.com)
Durability – both materials can last a long time, but hardwood in particular can last up to 100 years as a door (greenne.com)
Cost/Economy – both materials are reasonably affordable.
Wood can beat out plastic for some product though – ‘Wooden pallets are often less expensive to acquire than plastic pallets, and they are usually able to be used for more extended periods of time’ (palletone.com)
Wood vs Plastic In Building, Furniture & Other Applications – Wood is more favorable than most other material substitutes when it comes to global warming potential of different materials in construction and furniture (sustainability.stackexchange.com).
Other studies also show wood as being one of the most eco friendly materials across various measures/indicators for building materials, furniture, TV units, window frames, and other applications (fwpa.com.au).
Furniture, floors and doors made out of wood require less energy to produce than aluminium or plastic, and on top of that wood continues to store carbon for years … Carbon stored by wood products offsets nearly all of the greenhouse gas emissions related to their production (reuters.com).
Wood is by far the superior choice for building in all categories: total energy used to build, occupy, and dispose of; air and water emissions produced during manufacturing; solid waste generated in production and recovery; greenhouse gases produced during manufacturing; ecological resource use (ironwoods.com). In the ironwoods.com resource link below, they have two good tables comparing wood and plastic across various eco and performance indicators
The Sustainability Of Plastic
Read more specifically about the sustainability of plastic in this guide.
Other Factors To Consider
Just as there is different types of plastic, there are different types of wood. Each different type of wood (and wood material, product or item) can have a different sustainability footprint
The waste management systems, facilities and technology in a given country or State make a difference to the sustainability not just of different materials, but different waste items and products (because of how different waste materials and items are processed among the different disposal options at different rates)
Whether or not the wood product is made of recycled wood can make a difference. So does salvaging wood where possible
How long a wood product or item lasts, or how many times it can be used/re-used before being thrown out, impacts it’s sustainability footprint
Sourcing wood from sustainably managed wood stock makes a difference in terms of sustainability – sustainability certification helps in this regard.
Wood based products can come made with other materials like glues, plastics, metal, finishes & treatments, etc – all these additional materials and substances can change the sustainability footprint of a wood product (sustainability.stackexchange.com)