What to do with Durham’s urban wood?

Dec. 07, 2013 @ 12:42 PM

“What are you going to do with that” is a question heard constantly by the City of Durham’s arborists as they go about their work. What they are being asked about is wood.  Firewood in the winter, chips all year long. 

It’s a simple enough question, and the answer is simple too; “We dispose of it, and we can’t give you any”.

I’d like to think that the tone and delivery of the response is more diplomatic, but the message never varies.  As objectionable as it may be, this protocol is policy-based, hinging upon practical, logistical and legal concerns. 

So what stands in the way of your free firewood and/or wood chips? 

The major issue is staff time. Any operational change will have to take place in such a way as to not increase the amount of staff time allocated to the removal and disposal process. As much as I’ve thought about it, I can’t figure a way to make it happen without costing staff and equipment time (which is paid for by your tax dollars), and adding to the city’s liability.

Hypothetically, waste wood could be cut into firewood length and left behind at the removal site in hopes that someone will take it, or it could go to a community woodpile for disbursement. 

The former approach raises several concerns.  Cutting the limbs up takes time, burns fuel and increases wear on equipment and staff’s exposure to running chainsaws.  The public is then invited to load their vehicles on the side of the road, where work zone safety measures such as signs, cones and high-visibility clothing are absent.  More than one person can claim (and squabble over) the same wood, and additional trips to the site must be made to inspect and pick up any residual material.

At the woodlot, you need to separate the firewood from the material that is unsuitable (too large, rotten, etc.) and then process it.  Allowing the public to go onto public property to wield axes, chainsaws or splitters would expose them to danger and open the city to liability. The likely default is that city staff and equipment would be called upon do the processing, and a city employee must also be present at the site during the hours of operation. 

Chips are a different story.  They are used internally by numerous departments and divisions within the City.  Offering them to the public runs into similar problems (delivery costs, logistics, legality), while offering no cost offset.  We don’t have to pay anything to dispose of them; we’d normally have to buy them.  We would also unfairly compete with mulch suppliers in the private sector.

There is a wider question of what to do with the logs, a once-valuable industrial commodity whose intrinsic value is now dwarfed by the associated transportation, storage and processing costs. 

Other municipalities have been successful in merchandizing their waste wood to varying degrees, but they tend to have benefitted from more comprehensive efforts.  These have included banning urban wood from landfills and creating “business clusters” around wood-fueled power plants which created an avenue for a diversified stream of products (such as cutting boards, picture frames and flooring). 

In all the successful examples which I’ve looked into, the positive outcomes were years in the making and were driven by private-sector investment. There’s no question that urban wood represents an untapped resource in the region (not just Durham). Between a growing need for fuel and fiber, and an increased value assigned to all things “local,” I’m hoping that it’s just a matter of time before I can give a more satisfying answer to the perennial question “What are you going to do with that…?” 

Alex Johnson is urban forestry manager for the City of Durham.