Realising tropical timber¡¯s marine use potential
Tropical hardwood¡¯s long-held status as the prime material
for European fresh and seawater marine applications has
been increasingly challenged by alternatives; steel,
concrete, recycled plastics, wood-plastic composites,
temperate timber species and increasingly, for sea
defences, rock armour.
Some feel that sustainability concerns - the perceived
linkage of marine-use tropical species with deforestation -
and also the EU Timber Regulation have also increased
trade, end-user and specifier risk aversion and helped drive
further use of substitutes.
Despite this, according to comments from the EU trade,
tropical timber is still holding its own in the market. It
remains a material of choice for sea defences where
aesthetics and use of the coast as a public amenity is a
Many specifiers still acknowledge its unique technical
performance benefits and its environmental profile is also
being improved, albeit slowly, by growing understanding
and market recognition of its carbon and life cycle
However, it is also accepted that the trade cannot be
complacent. This is a product area that is already highly
lucrative and potentially set to grow more significant if, as
some predict, climate change affects water levels and
creates more extreme weather patterns, but the consensus
is that it is also likely to become ever more demanding in
terms of specification requirements and increasingly
Industry is responding to market developments
There are signs that the industry is responding to market
developments and challenges. In particular in the
Netherlands, arguably Europe¡¯s leading exponent of the
use of wood in marine and broader civil engineering
applications, an action plan has been launched to drive
There has also been growing activity to raise awareness in
the marine market of the potential of lesser-used or lesserknown
tropical timber species (LKTS). The aim is to both
relieve pressure on the most popular species, notably
ekki/azobe and greenheart, and also to increase the palette
of materials available to specifiers and potentially increase
timber¡¯s range of marine applications.
At the same time, say researchers, this area urgently
requires significantly increased funding from the timber
sector, both importers and suppliers, to generate the
performance data needed if these lesser known varieties
are to make progress and help combat the advance of rival
materials in the timescale required.
Trade feedback is that the European marine products
market this year has actually been steady to slowly
growing, reflecting wider economic growth and increased
government spending on infrastructure projects generally.
It¡¯s reported too that there has been a trend towards the
private sector becoming the key marine timber buyer,
although one Dutch importer/distributor said this ¡®goes in
phases¡¯. ¡°Currently a lot of public sector work is also
tendered as a project, and as such marine timber is bought
by the contractor,¡± they said.
A UK buyer also said some of the country¡¯s public
agencies have migrated away from tropical timber
generally. ¡°For instance, the Canal and Waterways Trust
now specifies only oak for lock gates,¡± they said.
They also commented that the UK Environment Agency
(EA), which has a large measure of control in public
marine project materials specification, has a hierarchy of
timber use, favouring recycled timber over virgin. ¡°The
EA applies this policy to its own purchases and
encourages partner projects to do the same,¡± they said.
They added that the EA also insists its personnel make an
¡°exhaustive business case¡± for using tropical timber.
However another importer maintained that the agency still
regards it as one of the foremost materials for marine
application, pointing to its guidelines for use of lesser
known species to highlight the overall pragmatism of its
¡°Ultimately,¡± it states, ¡°the decision about [timber] use
will depend on a mixture of technical, environmental and
The preference for European public projects, said
suppliers, is overwhelmingly for third party certified
timber, which in the marine market means FSC-certified
due to the lack of appropriate PEFC varieties. But this is
also currently tempered with practicality.
Other forms of proof of sustainability and legality are
accepted where certified is not available in the quantity or
time required. And interestingly, one importer/producer
noted a change in this area since the introduction of the
¡°We¡¯ve actually seen a marginal decrease in certification
requirements, with more contractors and local authorities
accepting solely EUTR compliant, legally verified
timber,¡± they said.
At the same time, another importer said FSC-certification
could still act as a ¡®passport¡¯ into the European market, as
demonstrated by increased interest in Guyanese greenheart
since the Iwokrama Forest was certified last year.
¡°[Guyana supply] has not been entirely smooth, but there
has been interest in its certified offering, especially in the
UK public sector where lack of certification had impacted
demand,¡± said a Dutch importer.
The EUTR has made marine-use tropical timber a more
On other effects of the EUTR, one importer said it had
made marine-use tropical timber a more difficult sell by
¡®generally raising concern about its legality¡¯. Others did
not wholly agree, but several commented that it had
narrowed the supply base.
¡°No single country has dropped out of the market due to
EUTR, but individual suppliers in several countries have
been unable or unwilling to meet European importers¡¯ due
diligence requirements,¡± one company said.
Whether related to the EUTR or not is unclear, but another
importer also said there had been a decline in the number
mills in Europe cutting tropical marine hardwoods. ¡°You
can now count them on one hand,¡± they said.
As for prices, the trend is reported to be strongly upwards.
This, said importers, is in line with wood prices generally
and largely the result of increasing global demand. Also
implicated, however, are increased freight rates, logistical
difficulties, including wood backlogs at the Cameroon port
of Douala, and, said one company, ¡°the burden of
paperwork required [of suppliers] under both the EUTR
and third party certification¡±.
It¡¯s against this background that a group of leading
hardwood companies in the Netherlands, all members of
the VVNH timber trade association and in association with
timber market development and research organisation
Centrum Hout, decided last year to launch their promotion
and educational campaign ¨C their core aim, to increase
uptake of tropical timber in marine/hydraulic and wider
civil engineering applications.
The inspiration for ¡®Wood in GWW¡¯ (Grond Weg in
Waterbouw) initiative was partly the result of earlier
environmental impact and LCA evaluation of tropical
The research was led by VVNH and backed by the
European Sustainable Tropical Timber Coalition, which is
dedicated to increasing sustainably sourced material¡¯s
market share. LCA work was done by Ernst & Young
Climate Change and Sustainability Services and
independently verified by Stichting Houtresearch.
The project compared sustainability ratings of waterway
pile planking in azobe, okan and angelim. It also measured
their environmental impacts relative to planking in steel
and plastic. The results came out strongly in favour of
wood and the report recommended ¡®more extensive thirdparty
verified LCA to endorse timber pile planking¡¯s
environmental benefits¡¯. Hence the 12 Dutch businesses
decided to take this work forward and develop a wider
promotional and marketing initiative.
Among Wood in GWW activities to date have been
presentations to leading civil engineering and contractor
businesses. These are reported to have generated positive
responses and increased consultation with the timber trade
on materials specification for projects such as plank piling
and bridge construction.
¡°The campaign has also increased interest in use of wood
for civil works at the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure &
Water Management,¡± said Centrum Hout¡¯s Eric de Munck.
¡°One of its responsibilities is implementation of a circular
economic model in the Netherlands, with a very ambitious
agenda to develop the bio-economy and cut emissions.
This now includes several projects to see how wood (and
other bio-based products) can help reduce CO2 emissions
in government infrastructure projects and to find ways to
give them privileged status in open public procurement
As part of this, he added, the ministry has commissioned
further LCA studies for a range of infrastructural projects,
including in tropical timber.
Wood in the GWW has its own website
(www.houtindegww.nl) and has published a range of
literature. It has developed a carbon calculator too,
predominantly for tropical species, which has now been
launched in English, German and French versions
Having assessed the campaign¡¯s impact to date, its
members have now decided to take it forward for another
two years, ¡°Wood in the GWW 2.0¡±. Plans include
increased targeting of local and central government
specifiers, ¡®development of circular [economy] business
models¡¯ and further LCAs on timber pile planking.
The latter are particularly focused on helping combat the
growing threat from the subsidised recycled plastic
¡°Sheet piling is an easy, low-knowledge product which
can absorb large volumes of waste, and plastic producers
are targeting 7% increase in market share in coming
years,¡± said Mr de Munck.
In summary, he concluded, Wood in the GWW supporters
had decided that ¡°it is necessary to increase
communication of the climate, environmental and
technical benefits of wood, especially sustainably sourced
tropical hardwood, as the competition increases¡±.
Efforts to increase use of lesser-known species
Meanwhile efforts to increase uptake of lesser-known
species have come not just from the industry, but also
from NGOs and the FSC, notably FSC Denmark and
One importer acknowledged that ekki and greenheart¡¯s all
round durability and technical characteristics, notably their
resistance to abrasion and marine borers and promise of
service life up to 60 years in salt and fresh water, made
them difficult to beat. However, said an importer, often
these species are specified through tradition or for
convenience in associated works alongside ekki and
greenheart projects where their properties are not needed.
¡°Specifying timber more in ¡®fit-for-purpose¡¯ terms, with
mixed species allowed, would lead to development of a
more diverse timber trade, in turn supporting sustainable
forestry, improving prices and fully utilising sawmills¡¯
capacity in producer countries,¡± said a company
Among species importers said they were highlighting for
marine construction included basralocus, opepe, okan,
eveuss and massaranduba.
Since launching its STTC-backed lesser-known timber
species website in 2016, FSC Denmark also reports
increased visitor traffic. Prominent on the site are case
studies of marine applications of such varieties as bilinga,
massaranduba and basralocus.
In the UK there is also a 25-year public/private partnership
project, the Pevensey Bay Sea Defence scheme, to
evaluate a range of tropical species, including purpleheart
and eveuss, alongside plastic composite.
Specialist in the field, Dr John Williams, principal
consultant (materials and structures) at international
environmental consultancy RSK, believes there is
considerably more scope for developing the range of
tropical hardwoods used in marine applications to the
benefit of the timber industry and the forest.
¡°As the STTC concluded in its report on Suriname and the
potential of its lesser used species, if we can use more of
this material, responsibly sourced, it adds to the value of
the forest and will provide an incentive for sustainable
management,¡± he said.
What is needed to achieve this, however, is more testing
and performance data, especially strength testing of timber
for sea defences. Dr Williams has worked with
Portsmouth University on accelerated trials for marine
timber abrasion and shipworm resistance. He is also
involved in research in developing alternative proofs, to
the European standard D class system for timber structural
strength, with a paper set for industry consultation once
Research requires funding, however, and Dr Williams
suggested that more should come from the timber industry.
He also maintained that now is the time to act,
particularly, due to growing concerns about marine plastic
pollution, with one competitor potentially disadvantaged.
¡°The industry has to provide the data to make it
straightforward for specifiers, such as local government, to
choose timber for this work. If it isn¡¯t and given the level
of competition in the market, there may come a point
where they lose patience with wood and, for instance,
order Norwegian granite for rock armour instead,¡± he said.
¡°Timber has a huge opportunity here, but it needs a joined
up, collective effort to be realised.¡±