First Steps Toward Developing a Pennsylvania Urban Wood Exchange

Tuesday, July 25, 2017
Pennsylvania state law requires municipalities to compost or otherwise recycle woody waste rather than to landfill or incinerate it. In isolated incidences, arrangements are made to have logs sawn to lumber, but most often woody debris is ground into mulch. Cities are required to establish a wood waste recycling facility or to contract with a neighboring community that has one. Still, sometimes a community may resort to stockpiling large woody material on an illegal city site, or to burning residential yard waste collected along with other refuse, also illegal. In 2016 the City of Harrisburg initiated the process of securing a site on which to establish a wood waste recycling facility.

In the summer of 2016, the USFS Forest Products Lab offered instruction on milling urban wood to Philadelphia parks and recreation staff. The Bureau of Forestry engaged Forest Products Lab staff in September to offer a similar workshop in the Harrisburg area, as a way to begin the conversation to link suppliers of urban logs to those interested in better utilizing them. Invitations went out to arborists, foresters, tree services, sawmill owners, craftsmen, cabinetmakers, and educators. A total of 60 people attended, with representation from all groups. The workshop provided an overview of urban wood use in other parts of the country; and presentations on assessing the quality of a log to determine its highest use, constructing a simple dry kiln, and producing biochar from scrap wood. Field demonstrations on milling and air drying wood, and on the small scale production of charcoal were included. A number of beneficial connections resulted from the workshop: the City began furnishing logs to a small specialty sawmill, and a regional vo-tech school began manufacturing charcoal with waste wood from its carpentry program.

The school contacted the Bureau of Forestry to discuss the possibility of initiating an urban wood processing curriculum at the school including sawmilling, kiln drying the wood, producing charcoal on a larger scale, and possibly using the charcoal in the horticulture program. We worked with them to apply for a Landscape Scale Restoration Grant in November to help fund the initiative, and received word in July that the project had been approved for funding. With the combination of school and grant funds, a portable sawmill will be purchased, a dry kiln will be constructed, and a charcoal retort will be manufactured. A curriculum will be developed to instruct the students in milling and drying the wood, and possibly selling the material to further the program. Construction and welding students will be involved in building the dry kiln and charcoal retort, and the production of charcoal will be introduced as a means of better utilizing waste wood. The horticulture program will utilize charcoal to enrich and loosen the soil, and will experiment with raising and providing bare root trees in the mix for use in community tree planting efforts.

The City of Harrisburg, meanwhile, finally acquired use of the site that had been selected to establish its wood waste recycling facility; designing the facility is currently underway. The Bureau of Forestry is working with them to try to ensure that sufficient space will be allocated for milling and air drying lumber, and eventually to also manufacture charcoal for biochar. In Philadelphia, the City Parks Department has begun contracting with a portable sawmill owner to mill city logs to lumber. The lumber has been used internally for raised garden beds and small bridges, as well as for shelving and cubbies in city buildings. In recent months, the City has also provided lumber to an operation that works with homeless people to build and repair homes. A recent contact has also been made to provide material to an organization that teaches basic carpentry skills to prisoners soon to be released. At the same time, the Bureau of Forestry has introduced the City Parks Department to the process of manufacturing charcoal, and the possible uses for growing out bare root trees and for enhancing soil in street tree plantings. A commercial recycling firm has expressed interest in the large scale manufacture of charcoal if markets are developed.
Currently the Bureau of Forestry is exploring options for creating an online database to link urban log suppliers with potential users. Municipal and commercial tree crews, as well as property owners removing shade trees, will be able to locate portable sawmills interested in purchasing logs or willing to process logs for a fee; or in finding firewood vendors or biochar manufacturers who may be interested. Woodworkers will be able to locate a source of rough lumber from urban trees, possibly with the address of the source as an added point of interest. Job training facilities like vo-tech schools, prison re-entry programs, and summer youth programs will also find sources of local wood through the network. Recycled materials outlets, such as Habitat for Humanity Restores, interested in selling urban wood will also be linked in to provide for homeowners, hobbyists, or other occasional users wishing to purchase small quantities. Much work remains to be done, but beginning at the local level with regional networks, and building out from there, seems to be the best approach for Pennsylvania. 

For more information contact:

Ellen Roane
TreeVitalize Technical Assistance & Urban Wood Use Coordinator
DCNR Bureau of Forestry
PO Box 8552
Harrisburg, PA 17105-8552
(717) 705-2825