THE FLUIDITY OF WOOD
Michael Levy Bajar
In the spring of 2011, Lucia Phinney and Jaquelin T. Robertson Visiting Professor Lionel Devlieger led an option studio entitled "Tools for Conviviality," which sought to understand the wood industry in Virginia and how its waste products might be reused. One outcome of the studio's research was a composition that mapped various flows of wood between initial states, used products, and disposed ends. The research for the body of the diagram was derived from within two industries: material recovery facilities (MRF) that break down construction and demolition debris for reuse, and mills of different wood and paper types that produce not only specific products for human consumption but also create by-products and waste in many forms.
At first, the data were organized into a linear trajectory, beginning with forest logging and ending at the landfill. However, several visits to different facilities and a thorough investigation into a broad range of wood products uncovered a series of down-cycling processes (as in paper, which can be recycled as many as eleven times), as well as up-cycling processes (as with particle board or engineered decking, which is produced out of 'end cuts'). Due to this revision, wood cycles and manufacturing processes are understood as a series of multidimensional branches with subdivisions and connecting loops at different stages.
By separating the wood flows, processes, and by-products, more specific relationships were found between manufacturing facilities and wood cycles than originally anticipated. Among the discoveries was that MRFs and wood mills in Virginia are not producing large amounts of landfill waste in comparison to other kinds of waste. Not only is it expensive to discard large quantities to landfills, but most of the waste, if in the form of woodchips or sawdust, is being reused as fuel to power machines in the facilities themselves. Additionally, a substantial portion of wood waste in landfills was coming from human disposal of construction and demolition debris as well as from furniture and other miscellaneous by-products that were chemically treated or somehow contaminated as part of the recycling process. This latter piece of information was difficult to define as a specific percentage; the life span of chemically treated products within a typical household can be of several years before it ends up at a landfill, making it challenging to locate and quantify after leaving the system.
The final version of the wood flow diagram provides a visual representation of the approximate volume of wood material currently in the system, the many trajectories that wood makes before it reaches an inactive stage within the system, its by-products that transition downward to become recycled products, and the various forms of waste that are created as part of the process in the state of Virginia.