The Green Thumb: Say Uncle
Manufactured at their Elie, Manitoba, plant (having a capacity to produce 140 million square feet per year), Dow sought to sell the plant upon the end of Woodstalk’s production. Unfortunately, they were unable to do so; it was just not economically viable considering the exponential rise in energy costs (natural gas and oil) during the preceding 18 months. Experiencing an increase of plus or minus 50 percent across the board for both energy and raw materials, Woodstalk became too costly to produce at price levels consumers were willing to pay.
GLASS CEILINGDow tried to increase the price of Woodstalk but discovered the glass ceiling end-users weren’t willing to pay a premium for an Ag (agricultural) fiber-based composite panel product. In the end, they were losing money on every panel produced. There have been many straw-panel producers who have entered the market since the mid-1990s, most sharing the fate of Woodstalk. This time, however, it was not a small start-up, but rather, a major industrial corporation “saying uncle.” In particular, it was a severe blow to advocates and promoters of green building products, particularly in the burgeoning market for Ag-fiber building products. Agricultural waste represents about 56 percent of the solid waste stream and reaches maturity in about three months (versus 60 years for a tree). Making use of it as a building material is one way of relieving the environment of a major source of solid waste. To help their customers during the phase-out transition, Dow listed alternative products on their Web site.
CATCH 22Paradoxically, Woodstalk was experiencing a growing demand in the marketplace at the same time it was experiencing its demise. Though the Manitoba plant was not operating at full capacity, production was steadily increasing. In the end, the price-point for Woodstalk was the problem that became insurmountable. Unlike standard particleboard typically inclusive of a wood fiber core and a Urea Formaldehyde (UF) binder, Woodstalk used straw as the core material and methyl disocyanate (MDI) as the binder. MDI is classified as a non-added formaldehyde binder and, as such, is more expensive than standard UF.
Many architects were dismayed at the news of Dow’s ceasing production of Woodstalk. It was well received by green building venues such as the GreenSpec Directory and BigGreen listserv postings. The largest producer of composite wood panels for the architectural millwork industry, Columbia Forest Products (CFP), offered a veneered Woodstalk-core product in their PureBond line (reference in this column in the article Déjà vu Part 2). CFP experienced excellent feedback from their customers concerning Woodstalk and were/are seeking alternatives to it in their effort to continue to offer a veneered Ag-fiber core panel product to their customers.
CFP announced that it will convert all its hardwood plywood production to a soy-based NAF binder and is investigating the use of this binder for straw-panel products. Testing has revealed that, though not as good as the MDI binder Dow was using for Woodstalk, a soy-based binder works better than UF or PF (Phenol Formaldehyde). The main obstacles to overcome for the use of a soy-based binder for straw-based Ag-fiber composite panels are the natural waxes and silica content inherent to straw.
DOMINO EFFECTIn February 2006, Fiberesin Industries, Inc., parent of Rodman Industries – manufacturer of ResinCore1 particleboard, shocked both its employees and customers with the news that it was giving them 60 days notice of closing. Immediately upon this announcement, Rodman booked four months worth of business in just three days – a testament to the product’s popularity.
Rodman Industries produced particleboard starting in 1965. With the end of operations effective May 31, 2006, architects, specifiers and end-users were just recovering from the shock of Woodstalk’s demise in November 2005 when this aftershock hit. Both Woodstalk and ResinCore1 were popular products with increasing sales, especially for ResinCore1 since Dow stopped producing Woodstalk. ResinCore1 particleboard featured recycled content, FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification and a phenolic resin binder.
CAUSE AND EFFECTLike Woodstalk, Rodman was experiencing increasing costs across the board. A Weyerhauser report in 2005 outlined an increase of plus or minus 5 percent for softwood and plus or minus 30 percent for hardwood prices since 1999. This made the wood fiber used in particleboard significantly more expensive. Also, especially for FSC-certified wood fiber, transportation costs were rising due to the fact that such fiber was becoming more difficult to obtain locally and/or regionally.
Beyond raw materials and transportation cost increases, energy costs, mainly for drying purposes, increased significantly. As well, the phenol used in the phenolic resin binder for ResinCore1 was derived from petroleum. As petroleum costs increased, so, too, did resin costs – exponentially as it turned out, further aggravated by Hurricane Katrina.
Weyerhauser, the largest timber products company in the United States, announced in 2005 that it was getting out of the wood panel products business altogether, putting both MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) and particleboard mills it owns and operates in the U.S. and Ireland on the block. Weyerhauser’s own internal report testified to the fact that the cost to produce and deliver a wood-based composite panel product to market has, since 2002, increased over 60 percent.
Despite these setbacks, there remains a solid, expanding market for engineered wood products with environmental attributes. Those opposed to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) green building rating/certification program as well as the FSC have found comfort in these setbacks. Most likely, their comfort will be short lived. Though not yet in the North American market, Chinese-manufactured competitively priced Ag-fiber panel products will very likely revive the interest and demand for these products.
UNCERTAIN FUTUREFor both wood and Ag-fiber products, the future is dependent on the “big three” of costs, which are very unlikely to decrease in the future: energy, raw materials and transportation.
For straw-based products, the key most likely will be to find binders that will work well with straw other than MDI. Raising prices is not a good option since there is a limit to which end-users are willing to pay a premium for an environmentally friendly product. Developing new, more energy efficient manufacturing processes is another option. The trend in the industry is to use NAF or, at a minimum, PF rather than UF (less off-gassing) binders.
Straw-based panels are lighter in color and provide better machine-ability than wood-fiber based panels, making them more suitable for MDF panels rather than for particleboard. Though substituting NAF and/or PF for UF will cause particleboard prices to rise, at the same time it will make any premium paid for more environmentally friendly composite panels more acceptable in the marketplace. As Martha Stewart would say: It’s a good thing.