Andy O’Hare, president of the Composite Panel Association thinks the general public is missing out on what a powerful and positive contribution wood products are making to the environment. In a live podcast interview at the AWFS Fair in Las Vegas, I asked him to share that story. (Please note, the following interview has been edited for clarity and length. To listen to the full interview, go to woodworkingnetwork.com/podcasts.)
WS: I want to talk about some commonly held misconceptions about some wood products especially in regard to their environmental impact, but first let’s get a little background on your association.
AO: The CPA has been in existence for about 60 years. It got started as the National Particleboard Association when particleboard was the only composite panel product that was produced at the time. Since then, the portfolio of composite wood products has expanded beyond particleboard to include medium-density fiberboard and others, and the association itself has grown beyond America to include Canada and Mexico. And by way of background for myself, I’m an association executive and I’ve been an association executive for about 35 years. I’ve represented a number of different industries, including the oil and gas industry, the cement industry, [and} the fertilizer industry, but one of the central themes of my advocacy — I’m also a registered lobbyist — has been on very technical issues — environmental issues, health and safety issues, energy issues — that have benefited from my scientific background. I’ve got a degree in chemistry and another degree in geology.
WS: I imagine that sets you apart from the average Joe that’s beating on the doors in Congress.
AO: You’re so right, Will. When someone walks into the door of a member of Congress and can credibly explain a piece of policy work with scientific knowledge as their background, they’re going to secure wins on behalf of their constituency, and I’ve got a number of such wins over my career.
WS: Where do composite panels fit into the picture when it comes to concerns about the carbon footprint?
AO: Well, I can tell you we have got one of the best stories for a particular commodity that I have ever been made aware of personally. This industry can claim to always have been carbon negative. Composite panels have always stored excess amounts of carbon beyond the amount they emit when they are manufactured.
WS: So, the people that are all worried about cutting down trees and all this kind of stuff, when it comes to composite panels, they really don’t have a case.
AO: Well, they can definitely take credit from the fact that we use fiber, so number one we’re also the most incredible recyclers. We take fiber that would otherwise be burned or decomposed in the forest or put into a landfill, and we mix that fiber with a small amount of resin and press it into panels that are then used to make very long-lasting wood products: furniture, cabinets, flooring. And that carbon that is present in the panels and then present in the products that use those panels — it’s storing that carbon for 50 to 100 years.
WS: And it can’t be released into the atmosphere to increase climate change.
AO: It can’t be. So it is bottled up, and a good percentage of these wood products are recycled and reused once they’ve reached the end of their initial useful life. Then if they are no longer useful, oftentimes they will either be burned for energy recovery or find themselves in a landfill. Landfilling is the place of last resort.
WS: However, that’s still storing carbon.
AO: When you landfill something, you’re sticking it into a device that doesn’t have any active oxygen decomposition. This is the scientist in me coming out, and so a wood product that’s disposed of in a landfill is essentially going to remain intact for hundreds of years.
WS: So, how much carbon storage can be attributed to these products over their lifespan? What kind of a contribution are we making here?
AO: It’s really an impressive story. In my tenure, which hasn’t been very long, with the Composite Panel Association, one of the first key initiatives that I undertook was to answer that question: so how much carbon are we actually storing? And to do so looking back at the last 20 years or so. So, I worked with a third-party researcher to determine on an aggregate basis over the course of the last 25 years how much carbon we stored in composite panels, and the number was just eye-popping. We have stored over 350 million metric tons of carbon just in the wood panels, not including all the carbon that’s in the cabinets and the furniture in addition to the panels that are ingredients in those products. So, 350 million metric tons doesn’t really mean anything to the average person. What it actually is, is the equivalent amount of emissions of CO2 from every car in the U.S. on an annual basis. Every single car on an annual basis.
WS: You mentioned that the product is carbon neutral, meaning that the amount of carbon created and released in its manufacture is offset by the carbon that it stores.
AO: Yes, and actually its more than 2 to 1, and as I indicated earlier, that carbon is locked up arguably forever even if you go to the landfill story because that carbon is not going to be released in any near term. So, if you reduce it to an annual figure, just from the production of particleboard and medium-density fiberboard, we are storing over 14 million metric tons a year, and that carbon store is then being added to every single year. It’s very significant.
WS: Everybody talks about saving trees and all this kind of stuff, and I don’t think they understand that or know that story. What are you doing to get that out there?
AO: Yeah, you are so correct, Will. I think the general public essentially understands that trees absorb CO2 through photosynthesis to grow the tree. However, they have no understanding of the relationship between the utility of a tree to make wood products and how that carbon is then stored in the wood products. So, wood is 50 percent carbon by mass. And you can easily do the math to determine how much carbon is being stored in a given piece of wood product.
WS: It’s something you can heft!
AO: You can, and you’re right that the message is not getting out to the general public. We as an association, working independently at CPA and with some of our partner associations, are trying to do a better job of communicating that story to the general public. We are making use of social media to get out the short messages to those that will listen and convey some of these very simple statistics that I just shared with you. In other words, that we can store 14-and-a-half million metric tons of carbon a year. And we produced the first in a series of videos that we will be pushing out on social media in that regard for the rest of 2023.
WS: This is a story where the numbers are there, and the math is there, and the science is there, but the public hasn’t been let in on it yet.
AO: If we’re going to try to tackle climate change thoughtfully and constructively, wood products have to be one of the prominent solutions. That message has to be conveyed more clearly and more thoughtfully, more diligently and repetitively.
Learn more about the sustainability story of composite panels and decorative surfaces in the 2023 Design Portfolio issue.
Read the complete Design Portfolio: The definitive guide to sourcing decorative surfaces and composite panels.
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