Eco Priority Guide: Timber and Wood Products


Forest management practices, particularly with regard to the protection of biodiversity, remains the most significant sustainability issue for wood products. Plantation management is coming under increasing scrutiny, as are related silvicultural issues, such as the use of genetically modified tree crops.

The use of wood products has the potential to lock carbon and reduce energy consumption relative to many other materials. However, many of the wood products in today's market are composites or use synthetic chemicals in their manufacture or fixing which have their own environmental loads (e.g. preservatives toxicity in disposal).

The sustainability of forest management in many areas of Australia and overseas continues to be subject to vigorous scientific and community debate. Although it is almost impossible to track, many imported tropical timbers are sourced from uncontrolled illegal logging in Asia. The 2001 State of the Environment Report found that in Australia many biologically significant ecosystems had not been protected under the Regional Forest Agreements and that the efficacy of forest management prescriptions remained to be determined. Major conservation groups remain concerned that Australia's conservation reserve system is not adequate and that forests are being significantly degraded through logging practices. Government and Industry consider the Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) process to have delivered a comprehensive reserve system and resource security to the industry.

A principle emerging issue for specifiers is the development of third party certification schemes including the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Australian Forestry Standard (AFS), which seek to provide greater confidence in claims of sustainability. Both schemes offer a Chain of Custody Certification (CoC), which provides commercially linked proof of a  paper trail for timber from the point of extraction to the point of sale. An essential characteristic of a sustainable material is its ability to be reused or recycled. However, this facet of sustainability is often barred by the use of adhesives and other non-mechanical fixing techniques which render the material unrecyclable.


The following issues relate to both potential positive and negative issues associated with each product class:

Priority Order

Solid untreated timber

Laminated timber products

Wood panel products

Preservative treated timber

Wood composites












Varies depending on constituent components



Health / Toxics

Toxics / Health

Issues of Concern/Red Light?*


Possible - Biodiversity & Toxics

Possible - Biodiversity

Possible - Biodiversity & Toxics

Possible - Biodiversity & Toxics

Table Key

GHG - Production of greenhouse gases, ozone-depleting chemicals.
Biodiversity - Destruction or an erosion of habitat and/or biodiversity values.
- Toxic and/or persistent and/or bio-accumulative emissions to the environment.
Health - Products or emissions during production or use that directly impact on human health.
Resources - The use of raw resources e.g. oil, metal ores.
Indicates an overall positive outcome.
* Issues that are of high concern and are a potential eco-design basis for not using the product.

Making a Decision


  • Specify what you want rather than what you don't want.
  • Use reused and recycled timbers where possible.
  • Preference third-party certified products with chain of custody, e.g. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), whether local or imported.
  • 'Certification' or other market claims without Chain of Custody (CoC) offer limited scope for independent auditing and should be treated with caution.
  • Use local timbers in preference to imported timbers, except where imported timbers have superior certification.
  • Specify smaller section timbers and sizes to optimise for plantation and regrowth timbers.
  • Use feature grade rather than 'clear' or select grade timbers. This reduces wastage and facilitates the use of younger timbers.
  • Do not over design. Use high value timbers & veneers in long-lasting applications where they will be appreciated.
  • Start with the end in mind: design to allow for reuse and recycling. Use mechanical fixing only if reuse or recycling is likely to be possible.
  • Minimise toxicity. Not all glues and preservatives are created equal. Use the lowest impact option for the application.
  • Be aware of differing meanings in specification. Terms like 'plantation' may be used in instances that do not strictly fit, e.g. the Federal definition is 'intensively managed stands of trees of either native or exotic species, created by the regular placement of seedlings or seed' (Walker-Morison, 2003).

Decision-Making Checklist

  1. Does a thing have to be made or used? If so, does it create a net benefit?
  2. Fate: Start with the end in mind. If the product is not reusable, fully biodegradable or highly recyclable at the end of life, or facilitating these activities, it's not sustainable.
  3. Energy: What will the product's likely net energy balance be over its life? Will it save more energy than it uses?
  4. Durability: Does the product embody an appropriate level of durability for its accessibility, criticality and maintenance profile?
  5. Biodiversity: Is there a chance that the product has had a negative impact on biodiversity? Erosion of biodiversity is a one-way street.
  6. Toxicity: Is the product toxic and/or persistent in the environment at any stage in its life cycle? If so, don't use it.
  7. Resources: Does the product use rare resources/ create a net negative flow of resources (e.g. poor maintainability/ high maintenance requirements)
  8. Is the product socially sustainable?
  9. Does the product, or its use, contribute to delivering synergy benefits in other building systems?

Source: Adapted from Andrew Walker Morison

Quick Guide

Solid untreated lumber


  • Renewable potentially highly sustainable resource
  • Low embodied energy (2-4MJ/kg)
  • High-strength to weight ratios achievable
  • Potentially high inherence durability
  • Wide range of appearance and physical characteristics
  • Potentially reusable, recyclable


  • May be sourced from poorly managed forests or plantations with adverse habitat, biodiversity, or toxicity impacts

Laminated Timber products


  • Excellent structural characteristics
  • High efficiency use of timber
  • Potentially reusable, recyclable


  • Options for reuse, recycling, or waste to energy recovery at the end of life may be limited by glues used
  • Some glues are highly durable and do not readily biodegrade
  • Higher embodied energy typically 10-11 MJ/kg

Wood panel and derivative products


  • Cost effective
  • Use of low value wood or waste-wood product


  • Relatively high embodied energy as adhesives typically have 20-30 times as much embodied energy (kg for kg) as timber. Panel products typically have embodied energy of 8-10MJ/kg.
  • Adhesives used for interior grade products typically associated with emissions of formaldehyde which can have adverse health impacts
  • Options for reuse, recycling, or waste to energy recovery at the end of life may be limited by glues used

Preservative treated Timber


  • Allows the use of fast-growing low value timbers species in high-hazard applications
  • Allows the substitution of timber for other materials e.g. steel and concrete, which have their own significant environmental impacts


  • Preservative treatments can be toxic to humans and the environment
  • Options for reuse, recycling, or waste to energy recovery at the end of life may be severely constrained by chemicals used
  • Preservative chemicals and significant levels of emissions associated with their production, and embodied energy
  • Long-term health and environmental impact is of preservative chemicals are still poorly understood

Wood composites


  • Allows the creation of products with desirable and unique characteristics including wood appearance and outstanding durability


  • Options for reuse, recycling, or waste to energy recovery at the end of life may be severely constrained by coproducts used
  • Potentially higher embodied energy depending on co-products used

Note: embodied energy figures (Lawson, 1996).

Selected Links and Resources

Refer to the ecospecifier Knowledge Base  -  Timber & Wood Products Technical Guide section for information on;

  • Overview and statistics on sector
  • Embodied energy figures
  • Relevant standards and eco-assurances
  • Less-toxic products & alternatives
  • Case studies
  • Recommendations
  • Further links and references

The following resources provide general information from an international conservation perspective:

All links last accessed on 26/03/13.

Further Information

For more detailed information on this topic contact


Lawson, B. (1996). Building Materials, Energy and the Environment. Sydney, Royal Australian Institute of Architects.

Walker-Morison, A. (2003). TIMBER & WOOD PRODUCTS: APPLICATIONS AND ESD DECISION MAKING. Environment Design Guide. Melbourne, Building Design Professionals Association.