Wood Matters

Tony Rotherham, RPF
Thursday, 01 January 2009
By Tony Rotherham, RPF
Handling pulp wood has always been a labour intensive process, with the increasing move to sawmill chips a cost reduction godsend.
Handling pulp wood has always been a labour intensive process, with the increasing move to sawmill chips a cost reduction godsend.

While people still talk about “saving trees” when they avoid using paper, that claim is now even more ridiculous than ever. As the chart opposite shows, the Canadian pulp & paper (P&P) industry moved from being a consumer of roundwood in 1965 to an industry based clearly on the use of building product residues and recycled paper in 2005. Not only should that drastic change have implications on the way the sector is perceived by the public, it should also have profound implications on the way we manage our forests moving forward.

 


But first, a few clarifications. That declining volume of roundwood still used by the industry is mostly debarked and chipped in woodrooms at the pulp mills. The vast majority of the sawmill residues shown on the chart does indeed come from sawmills. Yet a very small percentage is produced by in-woods or satellite chipping operations. So in the strictest sense, this small volume of chips is derived from roundwood.


But that said, the Canadian P&P industry no longer uses trees to make paper. The forest products industry uses trees to make lumber and other building products. The P&P industry then uses sawmill residues and recycled products to make paper.  


That’s the general trend. In any production system as large as Canada’s P&P industry (27 million tonnes produced in 2007), it is easy to show national trends, but these often mask important regional differences. A few examples will illustrate the importance of some of these regional differences.


The coastal P&P industry in BC was founded on the use of roundwood, but has since largely converted to chips. From the beginning, the BC Interior industry was based on the use of sawmill chips, with the possible exception being the mill in Castlegar, which had a woodroom and received roundwood from the Columbia River log drive.


The P&P industry in eastern Canada was founded on the use of roundwood, usually delivered by river drive. Only the newsprint mills equipped with stone grinders designed to use four-foot still need roundwood as part of the production system, and these facilities are increasingly rare animals.

The percentages of the three forms of fibre used by the industry in 1965 and 2000 are shown in the table on page 29. No reliable data on roundwood delivered to the pulp and paper industry is available after 2000. In 2003, Statistics Canada stopped requesting this data. We do know the percentage of production based on recycled paper. The percentage of sawmill residues is also based on data, so the difference is fairly easy to extrapolate.

 

Why the Change?
There are several reasons for this steady change. With the exception of the stone groundwood sector, all pulp and paper mills use chips of one kind or another. The only question over the years has been whether to deliver roundwood and chip it in a woodroom attached to the mill, or buy chips from sawmills. Similarly, all mills except market pulp mills use some recycled paper content. It’s really just a question of how much, and from what source?


In the early years of Canada’s forest products industry, the sawmill sector was quite distinct from the P&P sector. And they didn’t get along very well either. Wood supply was the main bone of contention. The P&P industry had the bulk of the forest management units and many nice sawlogs were bucked into pulpwood.

Since the 1980s there has been widespread integration of the sawmill and P&P industries. This has brought opportunities for optimization of wood utilization, helping to make sure the right wood goes to the best end use.


As wood rooms aged and needed replacement, mill managers looked for ways to avoid the $30 to $50 million capital cost and opportunities to rid mill environmental control systems of some of the dirtiest water in the mill system. Chips offered an attractive alternative for most mills.

Chips are also a materials handling dream compared to the old nightmare presented by tens of millions of pulpwood bolts four feet to eight feet in length. Chips are handled by truck dumpers and conveyor systems rather than gantry cranes, wheeled loaders, and myriad
piling and reclaim equipment. In most cases, a change from delivery of roundwood to chips also allowed for a reduction of 100 to 200 or more woodroom and woodyard staff, and resulted in an essential improvement in efficiency and competitiveness. This alone probably extended the life of many Canadian pulp mills.

The decisions that drove these changes were made by hundreds of managers over a 30-year period and  were driven by the need to reduce costs and optimize wood utilization. In some cases they also echoed provincial government policies that encouraged the use of roundwood to make lumber with as much of the Crown timber as possible, sending only residues and very small logs to the pulp mills.

There are some drawbacks to this heavy integration of course. The P&P industry and the sawmill sector are now joined at the hip. If the sawmill industry is forced to reduce production significantly, the P&P industry suffers a chip supply shortage. Conversely, many sawmills today are running just to fulfill chip contracts, thus pumping lumber into an already saturated market. The last two years have provided an object lesson in the perils of tight dependence, and yet another reason (as if we needed one) to diversify our lumber export markets. Easier said than done. Some flexibility can also be bought through the use of in-woods chipping systems. Satellite chipping plants are unusual in Canada compared to the US.

From 1940 to 1970, many forest researchers were concentrating on maximizing fibre growth per acre. Piece size didn’t matter much when horses and manpower did most of the work. But mechanized logging systems are quite sensitive to piece size. Piece size is perhaps the single most influential factor in logging system productivity and cost. Size also matters in sawmills. It is expressed as volume per lineal .

Today practically all trees harvested on our forest operations are delivered to sawmills. If we look at the trends it is clear that within five years there will be only a few small local markets for either four-foot or eight-foot pulpwood. As a result, we should be figuring out how to minimize the proportion of small diameter material in a stand, and maximizing the sawlog component.

The answer is to grow sawlogs. Perhaps this is particularly true for private woodlots, because woodlot owners sell into the market and have no influence on the shape of the wood-consuming industry in their region.

What size of tree should we aim for and why is the subject of the next article in this series. CFI will team up with some logging and sawmilling simulation experts to illustrate the potential value differential between logs of a variety of diameters. Perhaps size matters a little more than many of us are willing to admit?

In the meantime, the next time someone talks about the need to save trees, suggest they try living outside for a while.

 

Tony Rotherham is an RPF living in rural Quebec. In another life he was manager of the CPPA Woodlands Section, was a driving force in creating standards for and promoting the use of third-party forest management certification in Canada, and has practiced forestry in a variety of countries and climates over his long career. He wrote this article for Canadian Forest Industries Magazine.

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