Circular economy within the timber sector

Written by
Dr Ayub Macharia
Photo: Courtesy

Circular economy is a concept where efforts are focused towards keeping resources for a longer time, extracting maximum value from them whilst in use, recovering and regenerating materials and products at the end of each service life. This is unlike in the current linear economy which prioritizes the make, use, dispose of resources and results in wastage.

Circular economy is a remedy to local resource scarcity and reduces environmental impacts of our production and consumption patterns. Circular economy makes use of interventions such as designing out waste, enhanced innovation and use of renewable materials among others.

Adopting a circular economy system makes a lot of economic sense especially to manufacturers because of their strong reliance on raw materials. It promotes energy efficiency; improve water use and resource efficiency; optimise manufacturing and production processes; promote industrial symbiosis in industrial zone; improve energy efficiency and conservation. It promotes recycling to divert collected waste away from disposal sites and proper disposal in sanitary landfill sites.

Kenya has just finalized its Sustainable Waste Management Policy and Bill which are currently being considered by the Cabinet. The Policy and Bill advocate for a transition from linear to circular economy in waste management and implementation of the waste hierarchy for all sectors. In addition, the government is also finalizing the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Regulations which if enacted by December this year will usher in a new way of operations within the reuse and recycling sector in Kenya. The timber sector has been flagged out in the EPR regulations to be subjected to mandatory EPR schemes.

Timber only requires sunlight and rainfall to grow thus making its production the cheapest as compared to other mainstream building material. The country boasts of a tree cover of 7% currently and plans to increase this to 10% by 2022. Hence the timber sector will experience tremendous growth and further investment in circular economy will increase these gains.

Circular economy considers timber within the biological and technical components of a product materials cycle, designed for disassembly and re-purposing. Each component is broad and can benefit from circular economy investments.

The biological nutrients are non-toxic and can be returned to the natural nutrient cycle. The biological components such as organic litter and wood should not be wasted or destroyed. Natural systems of decay and composting should be enhanced as well as optimal use of these products e.g in agriculture in form of organic manure and renewable energy.

Technical nutrients include polymers, alloys and other man-made materials that are designed to be used again with minimal energy. Timber can be harnessed to make diverse products, and circular economy investments ensures these products life cycles are extended through reuse and recycling. Only a small fraction should be sent to sanitary landfills.

Timber products should be recycled or disposed of in a sustainable manner when they reach the end of their life. There are economic and sustainability benefits facilitated by recycling wood. Waste wood has a diverse number of uses and could be used by important value-adding manufacturing industries such as reused wood, fuel, animal and poultry bedding, pellets, briquettes, recycled as chipboard etc.

The flow of timber materials in a circular economy which considers the separate paths of the biological and technical nutrients is a crucial area that could inform investments in circular economy. These are distinct flows that could be harnessed for economic development as well as environmental enhancement. The journey of timber from being felled to end of life, presents numerous opportunities for value creation and retention.

The reuse and re-manufacture cycle for timber products should be exhausted before proceeding for recycling into products such as chipboard. After recycling, the product could be taken back to the biological nutrient cycle through biological composition, or energy recovery. Hence timber should be harnessed both as a circular economy resource, as well as a renewable resource. These opportunities have not been adequately harnessed and hence engagements among experts and business sector in circular economy for the timber sector should be promoted.

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