Sustainable Decking for Your Landscaping


The global pandemic has been going on for quite some time now and one of the knock-on effects is that people are being forced to spend more time at home. Naturally, this means more time in your backyard or garden. If you are staring at your rotting deck or tired landscape, day in day out, it’s only a matter of time before you want a change or to reinvest some energy into it. This has been great for us in the landscaping industry, as it has meant plenty of work. But with homeowners wanting a beautiful natural stone patio or elegant new deck wrapping around their hot tub it has led to a critical question; what materials to use and where do they come from?

Sustainability has become a hot topic in both the clothing and food industries, with companies making a big push toward being more environmentally friendly. The idea of locally grown produce, free of pesticides, or ethically produced clothing from recycled materials is a popular one. It is now possible to track the origins of products and see where and how they were produced. So why is it that in construction no one seems to question the materials used or where they come from? And if there is to be a change, with a swing toward an environmentally friendly construction industry, where does it start? With the consumer, the contractor, or the designers?

Decks and hot tubs have been very popular pandemic purchases and are a combined feature of a landscape that we love to install. But the kind of decking boards to use can sometimes be a bone of contention.  Should it be composite decking or timber?  If composite, what colour and finish? If timber, what kind of lumber and where does it come from? A very popular timber being used for decking is ipe, but what do we actually know about this hardwood?

In the construction industry, when you hear ipe being mentioned what is the first thing that comes to mind? Traditionally, it would be described as a beautiful, exotic hardwood that is insect and rot resistant, incredibly hard-wearing, and commonly used in decking and boardwalks. Ipe, also known as Brazilian hardwood or Brazilian walnut, comes from the forests of Central and South America. It has become incredibly popular in building, for the reasons mentioned above, and has therefore become very valuable. But other than a high price point, what’s not to like?  It’s not the wood itself where the issue lies, but in the harvesting of it. These exotic trees are difficult to source, as they grow in very low densities. Typically, mature trees only occur once in every 300,000 – 1,000,000 square feet (6-21 football fields). This lack of availability results in huge areas of rainforest being cleared to reach these precious trees.

As we all know, the Amazon Rainforest is the world’s richest and most diverse biological reservoir. It contains the largest collection of living plant and animal species in the world. There are at least 40,000 plant species and it is estimated that over 1,100 tree species can be found in just one quarter square kilometer (62) acres. But this precious place is being destroyed by the harvesting of ipe and other tropical hardwoods. Due to the ipe trees being so sparsely populated, huge areas of rainforest must be cleared to reach these. Often, as a result, the trees cleared to access the ipe have no commercial value and go unused.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an organization that was set up in 1993 with the goal of promoting responsible management of the world’s forests. Any ipe lumber harvested is now supposed to be FSC certified. Unfortunately, with ipe becoming increasingly more valuable and sought after, certification documents are being falsified. Para state in Brazil is the largest producer of ipe in South America and a 2-year investigation by Greenpeace discovered that 78% of the lumber being harvested is illegal. The common methods used are overestimation of the number of tree species in the forests, falsifying information in documents, getting permits for areas which have already been emptied of trees, to use the permit to legitimize timber logged illegally.

These predatory logging habits are causing immense damage to the rainforest; Indigenous tribes homes are being destroyed, plants and animals are becoming extinct due to habitat loss, and huge quantities of carbon dioxide are emitted from the harvesting process.

So, what can we do to help the issue? Are there alternatives? How can I know that the materials being used are sustainable and ethically sourced?

If it is real timber that you want, then plantation grown lumber can be used. The mahogany industry has had some new life added to it by projects such as the sustainable plantations in Fiji. The Fijian government authorized large plantations of genuine mahogany with strict rules to ensure all the timber is ethical and sustainable.

Another way to get your hands on some tropical hardwood, while not cutting down any trees, is by using reclaimed wood. This can be sourced from many different places, such as old buildings or, in the case of cumaru, from the bottom of lakes in Panama.

And if using real timber isn’t for you then there are lots of composite options, often made from recycled materials. One of the leading decking products on the market these days is Trex decking. These products are not only stopping trees from being cut down but are also preventing copious quantities of plastic from entering landfills. Trex says that their products are made from 95% recycled materials and that the average 500 square-foot composite deck contains more than 140,000 recycled plastic bags, films, and wraps.

With all the various options now available on the market, it is worth taking a bit of time to decide what suits your property or job best and whether it is sustainable or not. While there is still no perfect product, with a bit of thought and care, huge steps can be taken to clean up the construction industry and strive to make it more eco-friendly.

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