landscape with tree covered plastic bagsTrying to be a conscientious consumer can be difficult, especially when we’re always dragging misconceptions from the past behind us. When it comes to wood versus plastic, most of us had our ethical compasses set in the ‘80s, when the answer to the “paper or plastic” question at the grocery store was emphatically plastic! We all thought that by choosing against paper bags, we’d end up saving a few trees.


As it turns out, the U.S. lumber industry has been sustainably managing forest lands for more than half a century. What’s more, in the years since, we’ve come to realize that by choosing plastic we were actually polluting the world to such a degree that ocean life now swims in a soup of plastic particles.

In figuring out how to deal with this runaway level of plastic pollution, eco-conscious advocates increasingly tout the benefits of post-consumer recycled construction materials, or “plastic wood.” But while this may be one way of dealing with our plastic mess, studies have shown that when it comes to carbon footprints and the fight against global warming, lumber beats plastic, even recycled plastic. Efficient, fast-growing species like the Southern Yellow Pines produce sustainable woods that put plastic to shame.

Truth in the Numbers

From potential for acid rain, to respiratory effects and overall energy usage, “plastic wood” and wood-plastic composites have the highest levels of negative impact in all categories, according to environmental advocates Dovetail, Inc. The picture for carbon footprints is even more definitive, as a University of Tennessee review showed that in every category of building and manufacturing use, whole woods like Southern Yellow Pine had a negative carbon impact. This means that the use of whole lumber for construction is actually reducing carbon in the atmosphere, rather than contributing to it as plastic does, making lumber the best choice for the environment.

Lumber as an Alternative

lumber at a sawmillArmed with this information, many in the construction industry are turning to lumber as an alternative to plastics and other industrial building materials, even going so far as to build skyscrapers from trees. The Timber Tower Research Project is seeking to capitalize on timber’s function as a carbon sink to replace cement and other carbon-heavy materials in tall building construction. The US Department of Agriculture has even approved a $2 million competition for tall-wood construction in an effort to explore the possibilities for building with wood in urban areas.

Taken as a whole, the choice for contractors and homeowners looking for an environmentally sustainable tool in the fight against global warming is clear, and it points directly to Southern Yellow Pine and the lumber industry.


(Images via ThinkStock, via Shutterstock, via Wood. It’s Real.)