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Where is reclaimed flooring heading?

Posted on | By Thornton Kay
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Somerset, UK - In 1980, for the flooring of all three storeys of a completely gutted wreck of a house I had bought in Bath, I reused 8ins by 3ins reclaimed pine joists saved after the construction of the new auditorium seating at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, which I drove to Bath in my old 1950 K6 Austin truck, and pine roof boarding rescued by Walcot Reclamation from the early Victorian Somerset & Dorset railway station terminus at Green Park in Bath, which I turned into beautiful red deal floorboards. There was not much of a reclaimed timber trade then, even though the UK was way ahead of any other country in terms of reclamation and reuse.

At that time most of the cabinet reused reclaimed building materials, some of them buying from Walcot, and reuse was part of 'This Common Inheritance', the environment policy document where Chris Patten, our MP and minister for the environment at the time, ensured reuse of reclaimed building materials was included.

In 1991, the EU started harmonising standards for new construction products, so that once a new euro standard had been approved any non-conforming product would be taken off the market. There was some government confusion as to whether this would also mean reclaimed materials. The UK government informally said no and in any case they were derogating, and the EU, in the form of Karl Heinz Zachmann the head of the Construction Directorate, said yes, "I will not let reclaimed building materials into Europe." I asked several times for the UK government to give me the derogation in writing, but it was never forthcoming.

Then came WRAP and the long march away from mass small scale hand labour intensive low energy reuse with salvage yards in every town, towards recycling with capital intensive corporations and energy guzzling plant and machinery. Within a few years demolition moved from six men taking six weeks to carefully dismantle an old building with much material being saved, to one man with a great big machine taking six hours to demolish the same building and deposit its remains into a queue of huge trucks which carted it all off to landfill in a single day. The much-vaunted landfill tax was never going to be a solution to encourage reuse.

In 1998 the UK reclaimed timber sector reclaimed 700,000 tonnes a wood annually - more than the total of all domestically harvested new UK hardwoods and softwoods. By 2007 this figure had dropped to 200,000 tonnes annually due to the government encouragement of recycling, which meant burning in waste-to-energy plants, chipping, mulching, composting, panel board making, animal and pet bedding. Any option was considered equally acceptable provided material was kept out of landfills. Sadly, much of the wood destroyed was (and still is) the finest softwood from 500 year old trees in indigenous first-growth forests logged by hand by Victorian lumberjacks in the temperate rainforests of British Columbia.

Finally, conservative MEP Caroline Jackson, steered the 2008 Waste Framework Directive through the European Parliament, which created a waste hierarchy requiring reuse before recycling. This was brought into law in the UK in the 2011 Waste Regulations. Now, anyone seeing floorboards being destroyed can phone the Environment Agency and tell them that a breach of the waste regs is taking place. The EA has told us it will act in such a situation, but we have not heard of this happening yet.

The government stopped accounting for volumes in 2007, but my guess is that the amount saved in the UK is less than 100,000 tonnes annually, even though the market for the reuse of reclaimed wood has never been as strong. So to plug the supply gap the UK salvage trade began buying reclaimed wood from abroad, starting in Europe, then Eastern Europe and Russia, then North America and elsewhere, much of it in the form of beams or thick boards which can be converted into flooring (for some examples, see the SalvoWEB link below).

Meanwhile, ironically, the Chinese have apparently started buying, by the container load, reclaimed scrapped and broken wood from machine demolitions in the UK. We do not know what they are doing with this, but it seems likely that it may be turned into shabby chic reproduction and reclamation fakery MDF veneered furniture and cladding - and returned to the UK (and other western countries) to be specified by architects and designers who unwittingly (or perhaps not) use the new toxic material in their schemes to make their clients look eco-friendly even though they are far from it.

Governments used to be policy led, but now most policy comes from Europe which seems, in the area of construction products, to be controlled by lobbyists such as the Construction Products Association, whose interests are to sell more of their members new products, and not the careful reuse of existing reusable materials. This is why no CEN construction committee has considered end-of-first-life of a product and its reuse. In fact, there is no definition for reuse of a product - 'end-of-first-life' is simply 'end-of-life' as far as these committees are concerned. There is now talk of forcing salvaged materials off the market completely. It has been a lone battle since 1990 to try to prevent this from happening.

The All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Forum is calling for evidence for an inquiry into Remanufacturing - Resource security and opportunities for Growth. This is ostensibly about big business being funded to come up with schemes to remanufacture engines to make them more efficient at the end of their useful life. But it equally should apply to the reclaimed wood sector whose source material has been diverted by government, and whose product is being threatened out of existence by EU regulation.

The market forces are stacked against the salvage sector, whose turnover is a tiny fraction (maybe less than 1 or 2 per cent) of the new construction products manufacturers. So it cannot afford to lobby or advertise its way out of the problem. There is no salvage trade body either in the UK or Europe to represent their interests to government.

Once again, Salvo requests every dealer, specifier and user, to contact their MP and MEP to alert them to this situation. The UK still has a massive reserve of old valuable temperate softwood and tropical hardwood timber installed in buildings scheduled for demolition over the coming years.

The scale of the waste is staggering. On one site alone I witnessed three acres of beautiful unpainted opepi woodstrip in an Edwardian factory destroyed when it was demolished. Every day around 250 tonnes of reusable pine, and 25 tonnes of reusable tropical hardwood is trashed in the UK, much of it first growth forest timber from 1840- 1940 a period when Britain imported more than half the entire worlds timber exports.

Salvo will be submitting this SalvoNEWS story to the parliamentary committee, so please add any views, facts or opinions to the 'Disqus' section below.

[Below are some links to past SalvoNEWS flooring stories …


Turning shipping crates and scrap lumber into floors and panels News 19 Jun 2014

Comment on an article about fixing 12 reclaimed wood problems News 29 May 2014

Design Trend: Jagged edges and blurred boundaries News 08 Apr 2014

Reclaimed Flooring now Panelling News 22 Aug 2013

CITES responds to licenses and the reuse of reclaimed woodblock News 25 Jul 2013

What would you do with a Dutch barge board panel? News 18 Jul 2013

Reclaimed materials and products and the UK Building Regulations News 18 Mar 2013

C&D in Wales: New policy strong on reuse, weak on salvage yards News 29 Nov 2012

Benefits of using reclaimed wood flooring News 04 Oct 2012

George Lamb's home is full of salvage News 03 Oct 2012

Lost, landfilled, destroyed, thrown away, wasted and tossed News 23 Aug 2012

Real sustainability 1: The reuse of reclaimed building material News 14 May 2012

Reclaiming the Whole way News 08 Dec 2011

Pine Supplies near Bolton News 16 Feb 2007

Innovative Iceland launches reused pallet wood floors News 10 Nov 2011

Definitions of reuse and recycling - and their relationship with waste News 15 Apr 2011

UK Government: Remanufacturing – Resource security and opportunities for Growth
Upcycled flooring resawn from beams for sale on SalvoWEB

Story Type: Feature