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Waste Not
This Company Upcycles Waste Wood Into a Better Building Material

Cambium’s thermally modified wood transforms wood waste into a valuable resource — reducing carbon emissions in the built environment, promoting local job training and supporting urban-reforestation initiatives.

Wood is an essential global resource. Used for construction, fuel, paper, furniture, textiles and more, it is renewable, versatile, strong and biodegradable. These benefits lead to the ever-growing demand for it — the UN Food and Agriculture Organization predicts there will be a 37 percent rise in consumption of primary processed-wood products by 2050.

However, utilizing wood at such a scale comes with consequences — including increased deforestation, loss of biodiversity and diminished carbon-sequestration capabilities of forests — all of which exacerbate climate change.

Considering the demand for wood and the impacts of rampant logging, an unsettling abundance of it ends up in landfills or burn piles. According to National Waste Associates, wood is the second-largest component of construction and demolition (C&D) waste, after concrete — contributing to between 20-30 percent of all C&D-related debris and accounting for almost 10 percent (12.2 million tons) of all material waste sent to landfills each year — a colossal waste, considering the utility of this resource.


Washington, DC-based wood-utilization startup Cambium is flipping the script on urban wood waste and its environmental impact. Cambium's mission is to transform wood impacted by the four Ds (disease, decay, disaster and development), which would otherwise be discarded, into high-value wood products — to increase sustainability of supply chains by utilizing a valuable waste stream.

“Cambium’s story began where my life did, in rural New Mexico. My dad was a woodworker, so I grew up in the shop with him. I also spent much of my childhood surrounded by forests and subsequently watched those forests be decimated by climate change,” co-founder and CEO Ben Christensen tells Sustainable Brands®. “From an early age, I knew that my life’s work would be in climate change. I saw the opportunity to combine my knowledge of wood with my passion to build a business focused on mitigating climate change, and I jumped at it.”

The idea for Cambium was conceived in 2019 when Christensen noticed imported firewood from Estonia at a local store. Along with his childhood best friend, Theo Hooker — and Marisa Repka, a classmate from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies — Christensen embarked on a mission to reimagine the supply chain. Together, they set out to transform local wood waste into valuable resources and developed what they call “the world’s most sustainable wood” — Carbon Smart Wood™.

Carbon Smart Wood and Traece

Carbon Smart Wood is made from salvaged wood — including trees removed due to disease, decay, disaster and development — sourced through partnerships with local arborists and municipalities; then, heat-processed and upcycled into a new, unique material.

“We rescue fallen timber that would otherwise end up in landfills and utilize a thermal modification process that involves natural heat and steam to remove moisture from wood cells,” Christensen explains. “The result is wood that is lighter in weight and easier to handle/install. Thermally modified wood is also less susceptible to cupping and warping changes in humidity and lowers the risk of fungal attack, because the wood no longer contains sufficient nutrients.”

Carbon Smart Wood offers substantial emission reductions in the built environment — Cambium says its production emits seven times less CO2 than wood-plastic composites. The company tracks its environmental benefits by assessing its carbon-sequestration potential throughout its entire lifecycle using Traece™ — the company’s proprietary supply chain platform, which traces each piece of wood from its source tree to the final product. By doing so, Cambium can accurately measure and compare the carbon footprint of Carbon Smart Wood to that of traditional lumber production. The Traece platform, which has amassed 245 users, also connects Carbon Smart Wood with local buyers for use in building, furniture and other applications.

To date, Cambium has produced 3.1 million board feet of Carbon Smart Wood — with each board foot storing 5.23 pounds of CO2e, the company says. The production of Carbon Smart Wood is equivalent to offsetting 7.9 thousand miles driven by an average car, 147 home energy uses for a year, and 360 gallons of gasoline consumed. Additionally, Cambium has planted 5,800 trees — sequestering 7.1 thousand metric tons of CO2e.

Cambium is dedicated to minimizing carbon emissions across its operations. As Christensen explains, “By rescuing fallen timber and using a localized supply chain, we reduce waste and transportation emissions. Additionally, our thermal modification process optimizes energy efficiency, further lowering our carbon footprint throughout manufacturing.”

Cambium’s Carbon Smart Wood and Thermally Modified Carbon Smart Wood (which undergoes an extra step of the thermal-modification process that makes it more resistant to warping and mold, so it’s better suited for exterior applications such as decking and siding) both hold a Declare Label from the International Living Future Institute and are certified 100 percent biobased products by the USDA. Cambium has also partnered with a third-party sustainability agency and lifecycle assessment scientist to review its assumptions about the benefits of its products.

Carbon Smart Wood offers a range of products for Decking, Siding, Fencing, Millwork and Lumber. Each line features both Carbon Smart Wood and Thermally Modified Carbon Smart Wood options — with species including Thermal Red Oak, Thermal Sycamore and Thermal Pine. To date, Cambium’s wood has been used by companies including National Geographic, Patagonia and Guinness; and is featured in Room & Board’s Graft Collection.

Social impacts

Cambium engages with local communities and stakeholders to ensure positive social impact through various initiatives, such as the Philadelphia Reforestation Hub — a public-private partnership for wood-waste capture and job-skills training that involves partnerships with organizations including PowerCorpsPHL and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation.

By developing a sawmill and lumber yard at the Fairmount Park Organic Recycling Center, the project aims to give new life to fallen city trees while providing career-development pathways for local residents. Through its workforce-development program, Cambium offers job training for underserved adults aged 18-30 — equipping them with the skills needed for living-wage jobs in energy, green infrastructure and community-based careers.

Additionally, 15 percent of Reforestation Hub profits are allocated to planting new trees in partnership with TreePhilly — focusing on low-canopy areas identified in Philadelphia’s urban forest strategic plan. This initiative aims to create a sustainable revenue stream to support ongoing urban forest maintenance and regeneration.

“So far, the Reforestation Hub has diverted 542 logs from waste — yielding an estimated 28,000 board feet of Carbon Smart Wood,” Christensen says. "The Hub will showcase a new model for upcycling urban wood-waste capture and skills training for green-collar jobs. We’re excited to bring this model to other US cities. We’re also working on a new mass timber product that will allow Carbon Smart Wood to be used for bigger construction projects.”

As Cambium scales its model for capture and upcycling of urban forest waste, the company says it has the potential to reduce as much as 1.5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually — contributing to climate action while promoting responsible sourcing and ecosystem reinvestment.


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