Is Reclaimed Wood Sustainable?

Learn all about this green building material and how it impacts the environment.

Reclaimed wooden wall with a wooden door, table sets and flowers in zinc vase in bright sunlight.

Artit_Wongpradu / Getty Images

Building with reclaimed wood is a green building practice that reuses old wood recovered from a variety of sources. It is usually taken from existing structures like old barns or homes in the process of being demolished, but it can also be taken from gym bleachers, wine casks, shipyards, shipping materials, and many other sources.

Whether in new construction or for home remodeling, reclaimed wood can be a more sustainable alternative to new wood and other building materials. It can also add character and comfort to your home.

Reclaimed Wood vs. New Wood

Reclaimed wood's environmental impact is smaller than that of new wood. The construction industry is the world's greatest consumer of natural resources, and 80% to 93% of its CO2 emissions come from the production of raw materials, including lumber. Lumber is a multibillion dollar global commodity, and 8% to 10% of new wood is forested illegally, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Deforestation is a widely known global problem, as is the important role that forests play in sequestering carbon. While many timber industry representatives have pledged to halve deforestation, the Zoological Society of London reported that nearly half of the world's top 100 tropical timber and pulp companies have not committed to sustainable forestry practices. Yet even the sustainable harvesting of legally obtained new wood reduces the amount of stored carbon in a forest.

Reclaimed wood should also be contrasted with other building materials. Conventional building materials made from non-renewable resources, such as particleboard, concrete, brick, steel, and plywood, have a higher carbon footprint than even new wood, and are the main source of indoor air contaminants such as volatile organic compounds.

Did You Know?

A building with reclaimed wood gains points toward certification from the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED program or even certification from the more rigorous Living Building Challenge. The Forest Stewardship Council also certifies that the wood you are using is reclaimed. Certification not only assures you of the reduced environmental impact of the building materials—it can also increase the value of your home.

Is Reclaimed Wood Environmentally Friendly?

As with any human activity, the process of reclaiming wood is not without its environmental impact. Reclaimed wood must be salvaged, treated to remove molds and pests, de-nailed, milled, kiln-dried, planed, sized, and shipped. Yet compared with other building materials, the environmental benefits of reclaimed wood are obvious.

Reduces Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The use of new wood in building construction has a lower carbon footprint than using mineral-based materials like concrete or steel, and climate advocates call for more use of timber in construction. The problem is with its disposal. Wood waste that's not reclaimed often ends up in landfills. As it decomposes, it emits greenhouse gases, especially the potent gas methane. Reclaiming wood means its stored carbon remains stored.

Reduces Deforestation

Most obviously, reclaimed wood reduces the impact on forests. But this benefit has downstream effects as well. Much of the world's deforestation—especially its illegal practices—have occurred on Indigenous lands. Reducing the demand for new wood in turn reduces the pressure on Indigenous peoples around the world and helps to preserve their land claims and cultures.

Reduces Resource Consumption

The cultivation and processing of new wood involves not only energy consumption but also water to irrigate newly planted trees. Reclaimed wood shortens the supply chains and transportation of necessary materials. And because some wood even increases in strength as it ages, reclaimed wood doesn't need the chemical treatments to strengthen it that new wood often does.

Increases Durability and Quality

Time weeds out poor-quality wood, meaning wood that's suitable for reclaiming has withstood the test of time. Before and after harvesting, reclaimed wood has already been exposed to the environmental pressures that tend to warp and split new wood, meaning it will be of better quality and will last longer. Floor boards are less likely to warp or creak, and doors and windows are more likely to continue to hang straight.

Supports Local Economies

Wood that would otherwise end up in the landfill can be used to benefit the local economy. In Maryland, the Baltimore Wood Project employs local artisans and construction crews—often from low-income communities and communities of color—to reclaim wood from vacant homes and lots among the city's aging row homes. The result is beautifully crafted furniture and home furnishings that help revitalize local communities.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Is reclaimed wood weaker than new wood?

    Just the opposite: Counting the growth rings in reclaimed wood compared to new wood shows that reclaimed wood is more likely to have been harvested from older trees. Its wood is denser and stronger.

  • Does reclaimed wood require more maintenance?

    All wood should be maintained, but reclaimed wood requires no more maintenance than new wood. Avoid cleaning with harsh chemicals in cleaning products, protect it from scratches by using felt pads or rugs, and mop up water spills.

  • Is reclaimed wood more susceptible to fire?

    While you can purchase reclaimed wood that has been treated with a fire retardant, the wood that's in good enough shape to reclaim is often hardwood, and hardwood's dense nature makes it less susceptible to igniting.

View Article Sources
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  2. "Timber." World Wildlife Fund.

  3. "Despite international agreements, analysis reveals widespread failure of timber companies to guarantee environmental protections for at least 11.7 million hectares of tropical forest." The Zoological Society of London. 2020.

  4. Khoshnava, Seyed Meysam, et al. “The Role of Green Building Materials in Reducing Environmental and Human Health Impacts.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17:7 (April 10, 2020), 2589. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17072589.

  5. Hart, Jim, and Francesco Pomponi. “More Timber in Construction: Unanswered Questions and Future Challenges.” Sustainability 12:8 (2020), 3473. doiI:10.3390/su12083473

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