Fieldworks: NYC Tree Salvage & Reuse

What Happens When a New York City Tree is Removed?

Our urban forest is home to more than 7 million trees and over 138 different tree species that contribute numerous essential benefits including cleaner air, a cooler city, lower energy usage, reduced stormwater runoff, and recreation. 

Currently, the lifecycle management of an NYC tree ends at the point of removal. The tree is chipped and either used for mulch or disposed of in landfills. This costs the city in both waste fees – from 2014 to 2020, NYC Parks spent over $3 million in tipping fees alone – and greenhouse gas emissions. An average 40-year-old hardwood tree can store approximately 1 ton of carbon. Once a tree is chipped, the carbon is released and, in the case of landfilled wood waste, emits methane, a greenhouse gas up to 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Tri-Lox’s tree salvage and wood reuse pilot is the first of its kind in NYC, engaging with both public and private forest managers to build the foundation for a hyperlocal urban wood reuse economy. This circular system invests in the wood itself rather than its disposal. By transforming a removed or fallen tree into lasting wood products, the tree’s purpose extends beyond its lifecycle and it continues to store carbon sequestered over a lifetime. Not only does this system reduce our city’s waste and emissions, but it also expands the local wood industry with the potential to create a new workforce and a local wood resource.

Building A Circular System

Tree salvage and wood reuse reduces carbon emissions, creates green jobs, and finds renewed purpose in NYC’s trees at the end of their lifecycle. 

The Background: Witnessing Canopy Destruction & Urban Wood Waste

Tri-Lox began to contemplate this issue of NYC wood waste after witnessing the incredible damage of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. We saw firsthand that the city did not have the capacity to manage the influx of downed and damaged trees. The team knew there must be a better way, one that prioritizes reuse, circularity, and carbon sequestration rather than disposal and greenhouse gas emissions.

Hurricane Sandy downed over 11,000 trees across New York City. Floyd Bennet Field in Brooklyn became a hub for over 240,000 cubic yards of woody debris.

One of the symptoms of our climate emergency is the increase in extreme weather events in NYC. Hurricanes like Sandy and Isaias (which caused extensive canopy damage in August of 2020) will continue to damage NYC’s urban forest and cause destructive flooding. As the city develops resiliency strategies with increasing urgency, tree salvage makes these endeavors more sustainable by being responsive to both planned removals as well as an influx of fallen or damaged trees due to storms.

The Big Picture: Supporting NYC's Urban Forest

As part of the Forest For All NYC coalition, Tri-Lox works with a dynamic group of organizations and government agencies to develop, advocate for, and execute an agenda that equitably supports and expands our city’s forest. Creating a healthier, more robust NYC forest does not simply mean planting more trees, but also having a system of long-term care that considers the entire lifecycle of the tree. The coalition and its NYC Urban Forest Agenda present a roadmap focused on the health of the forest and NYC residents, from creating tree planting and management standards to cultivating urban forest careers to transforming wood waste into a sustainable local resource.

“We believe in a greener NYC and want to contribute our own expertise to that effort. Seeing our work as part of the larger agenda and connecting wood reuse with the rest of the tree’s life cycle creates a more expansive vision of how we can support our urban forest. Working with this coalition has given us new insight and fostered new collaborations that have been essential in developing our urban wood salvage work.”

– Alexander Bender, Tri-Lox Founding Partner (p. 36, NYC Urban Forest Agenda)

Our Partners + Our Process

After strategizing with many urban forest stakeholders, Tri-Lox began this pilot project in collaboration with two vital forest stewards, NYC Parks and Green-Wood Cemetery, as well as the workforce development organization Brooklyn Woods, a division of Brooklyn Workforce Innovations.

Working with these partners, we created a set of pilot deliverables needed to shift tree removals from a system of disposal to one of salvage and reuse.

  1. Develop Contract Specifications that include tree removal requirements with quality control measures for general contractors and tree removal sub-contractors
  2. Create a Salvage Evaluation Training Module for NYC Parks foresters and other tree managers that teaches guidelines and best practices for salvaging urban trees
  3. Develop a Salvage App that catalogs tree-specific data including tagging and tracking, geolocation, inventory cross-referencing, photographs, and removal prescription that can be used across the salvage, removal, and log management process
  4. Create a Primary Processing Training Module that augments an existing job training program for NYC woodworkers to learn about the salvaged-log-to-lumber transformation process
  5. Create Policy Recommendations that would scale the pilot to a permanent infrastructure for NYC trees

A London Planetree is evaluated for salvage and entered into the app, removed according to specifications in the app, milled, and stacked for drying.

NYC Parks stewards over 30 thousand acres of land (and growing), including parks, beaches, recreational facilities, street trees, and community gardens. As the caretakers of our public forest, NYC Parks foresters manage about half of the city’s canopy, removing an average of over 12,000 trees per year. If the city agency adopts tree management standards that include tree salvage, it can have an enormous impact on reducing waste and producing local wood for local use. 

A group from NYC Parks, including Commissioner Sue Donoghue, visits the temporary log yard in Greenpoint. Tri-Lox and NYC Parks use this vacant space to mill and dry salvaged NYC logs until the site begins the remediation process to become a public park.

Building this circular system starts with shifting the process from tree disposal to evaluation, removal, and salvage. We worked with NYC Parks to establish a training manual for how to evaluate trees for salvage, an app to collect and track tree data for stakeholders throughout the removal process, and a set of contract specifications that formalize removal-for-salvage requirements.

Green-Wood is a 478-acre cemetery, arboretum, and vital part of the NYC forest, annually sequestering over 264k pounds of carbon and mitigating over 2 million gallons of stormwater. While the first priority is to keep Green-Wood’s trees in the ground for as long as possible, when a tree does come down, salvaging the log creates a renewed purpose for the material while also helping the arboretum reduce waste and carbon emissions.

Green-Wood’s horticulture and grounds operations teams adopted our evaluation-for-salvage guidelines to salvage both downed trees and planned removals. The first logs salvaged were storm damaged trees from Hurricane Isaias in 2020.

We worked with the Green-Wood team to convert a corner of their service yard into a modest space for log storage, milling, and drying. To optimize the process and the limited yard space available, Tri-Lox and Green-Wood are researching building out a mobile solar kiln that can speed up the drying process without adding any embodied carbon – an increase in capacity as well as sustainability.

Brooklyn Woods is a crucial partner that Tri-Lox has worked closely with for many years, often hiring graduates of their woodworking training program to be fabricators in our workshop. At our temporary primary processing site, Bayside, Tri-Lox worked with Brooklyn Woods to build a two-day primary processing training module that augments their curriculum. 

This session provides trainees with firsthand experience of the process that turns logs into lumber — in other words, showing what happens before the wood gets to the workshop. They learn how to read a log on the mill, how different sawing methods work, and how to prepare the wood for drying. 

This addition to the Brooklyn Woods curriculum expands the context of the program, demonstrating what local wood sourcing can be, how working with wood extends beyond the workshop, and how to work collaboratively throughout the process.

Urban wood is the product of our dense, vibrant environment, often absorbing nails, metal fences, and various pieces of the city over the course of its lifetime. Sawmills outside of the city are reluctant to take urban timber, but there’s an opportunity to build out a workforce and infrastructure for managing our wood right here in NYC.

What's Next: A Pathway to Permanence

Tri-Lox continues to develop a variety of end-uses for this unique wood. Small quantities from unfamiliar tree species prevent rough-sawn city lumber from having value within the standard lumber market. Instead, Tri-Lox is using innovative product development to create a portfolio of uses that demonstrates the previously-untapped potential of NYC wood.

Our goal continues to be placing this material on projects that have an inherent benefit to the NYC community and we are actively seeking collaborators who can work with us to specify the wood in spaces that benefit the public. 

Additionally, we are partnering with companies invested in working with sustainable materials. For example, Tri-Lox joins a growing group of manufacturers that supply urban wood products and components to furniture retailer Room & Board.

Room & Board’s Stanley shelf, crafted in our Greenpoint workshop from NYC-salvaged Oak.

As we work to transform these salvaged materials into an array of wood products, we’re also researching the next steps to making tree salvage and wood reuse a standard practice for urban forest management in NYC. In the Spring of 2023, we began working with a group of graduate students from the New School’s Urban Policy Lab to develop a set of policy recommendations that Tri-Lox and its partners can advocate for. These recommendations strive to initiate the supply of salvaged NYC logs as well as the demand for salvaged wood on NYC projects.

There are economic, environmental, and social benefits to establishing this new circular system, but the pathway to permanence requires significant support both from the public and policymakers. As this pilot concludes, Tri-Lox will continue to advocate for NYC tree salvage and look to other stakeholders – city agencies, nonprofit organizations, private companies, and local coalitions – to join us in investing in a circular infrastructure that benefits the forest and people of NYC.

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McCarren ParkHouse