At Unilin Group waste wood that can no longer be recycled is turned into green energy
Trees extract CO2 from the air and produce oxygen. Moreover, this CO₂ remains stored in the wood as long as it’s not incinerated. Therefore reusing and recycling wood is our priority. Unfortunately though, wood cannot be recycled indefinitely. So what happens to the waste wood Unilin Group can no longer use to manufacture high-quality products? We’ve come up with a sustainable solution! This waste wood is incinerated in green energy plants where we generate our own green energy!
Today Unilin Group has two green energy plants in a joint venture with green energy specialists Aspiravi. These two Belgian plants account for a considerable portion of the energy needs of several production sites. These plants constitute the final piece of the puzzle in the circular wood narrative of Unilin Group. We talked to sustainability expert Lasse Six, who is more than happy to shed some light on how that works.
Are green energy plants really that sustainable? Those at Unilin Group certainly are, Lasse confirms. “Some biomass plants have been criticised for felling trees that are subsequently incinerated in their plants. We don’t do that: all of our wood residue is sourced from products that are no longer fit for recycling. The wood fraction that can be reused or recycled is sent to our production sites to make new products, thereby keeping the wood in the chain for longer. This is the most logical choice, not just in terms of sustainability but also from an economic standpoint.”
Sharing green energy with the neighbours
In 2010 the first green energy plant was taken into operation: A&S in Oostrozebeke, Belgium. “It’s a joint venture with Aspiravi, who are active in the development, construction and exploitation of green energy projects. They take care of the day-to-day management.” Since 2021, the second green energy plant, A&U in nearby Wielsbeke, Belgium, is also fully operational.
The location of the two plants wasn’t chosen at random. They are situated close to some of Unilin Group’s own production sites, which use half of the generated green energy. “The plant even covers as much as 90% of the energy needs of our chipboard plant in Wielsbeke. That’s really huge! And the plant even generates additional energy. The remaining green energy is exported to the grid and used by local families.” Apart from the two operational green energy plants in Oostrozebeke and Wielsbeke, Unilin Group is also planning to build a third plant in Vielsalm, also in the vicinity of its own production sites.
Lasse emphasises that the generated heat is also put to good use. “The heat generated at A&U goes to our nearby chipboard plant and Agristo, a neighbouring manufacturer of frozen potato products.”
So if no trees are logged to supply the green energy plants, where does the wood come from? Lasse: “At Unilin Group it is our mission to keep wood in the loop as long as possible. This is because wood stores CO2 so the longer it can be used, the more the environment benefits. This means we always start by checking if waste wood can be recycled in our products. This can be wood residue from our own production sites, or waste wood collected by our partners in recycling parks. In other words, the old nightstand you dropped off at the container park may well find its way to Unilin Group. Only waste wood that is too contaminated or degraded to be used for anything else is sent to the green energy plants.”
And the plants themselves, don’t they emit CO2? “They do. The CO2 that is stored in the wood is obviously released when the wood is incinerated”, Lasse explains. “Nevertheless, the result of our approach is climate neutral. Wood is recycled several times in our high-quality products before ending up at our green energy plants. This means it goes through as many as three to four life cycles. By the time the wood has reached the end of its useful life and is incinerated, so much time has passed that one or even two trees have meanwhile grown in its place and, in turn, have also been storing CO2. This compensates the emissions of the green energy plants”, Lasse continues.
“Moreover, the CO2 in the wood is also released if the trees are simply left to rot and decay on the forest floor. Also, we once calculated that if we left the waste wood in place, in ten years’ time the municipality of Wielsbeke would be buried under a layer of waste wood 10m thick so we can’t just leave it lying about”, he laughs.
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