Mother Earth Living

What the Deck? Green Deck Options

Walk the plank on these sustainable options.
By Sam Martin
March/April 2005
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Cedar decking like this can be sustainably grown and harvested without devastating forests.
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Adding a deck can be a great way to enjoy the outdoors and add another room without building walls. Unfortunately, much of the wood used to construct these additions comes from harmful logging practices that destroy the very nature we want to enjoy. For an eco-friendly alternative, consider wood that’s been responsibly harvested and certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)—or look into non-wood decking made from recycled plastic.

FSC-certified wood comes from a forest that’s being managed according to sustainable and environmentally conscious guidelines set forth by the FSC, considered the global standard setter for responsible forestry practices. Distributors must also be certified by the FSC before they can sell FSC-certified wood.

However, there’s growing concern about U.S. lumber companies that are certified to sell FSC wood but never actually stock it. “People are being fooled,” says Larry Percivalle, sales and marketing director for EarthSource Forest Prod­ucts (ESFP), a certified-wood supplier that specializes in deck woods. “Customers see the FSC logo on company letterhead and assume the products are certified.” Other companies may claim different certification, hoping that when customers see the word “certified” they’ll think the wood is sustainable. According to Percivalle, “the FSC certification is the only one that’s credible.”

You can find FSC-certified suppliers on the organization’s website, but the only way to know for certain if a store carries certified lumber is to ask. Then, check your invoice. “A customer in­voice should show a line item that says ‘FSC ­certified,’” says Dan Harrington of EcoTimber a certified wood company specializing in interior floors. “If the invoice doesn’t show those words, the wood isn’t certified.”

Deck It Out

For wood to perform its best outdoors, it has to be water and bug resistant. Pressure-treated wood—usually pine—has always been the easiest product to find that meets these prerequisites. The pressure-treatment industry has phased out CCA-treated wood (containing copper, chromium, and arsenic)—in favor of arsenic-free treatments such as ACQ (ammonium copper quaternary), but safety concerns remain.

Most hardwood decking products are naturally resistant to dry rot and insects because of the wood’s density and the oil present in it. Redwood and cedar are the most common types grown and harvested in the United States, though it’s very ­difficult to find FSC-certified cedar these days, says Percivalle.

FSC-certified tropical hardwoods are the wood of choice for many green building professionals and environmentalists. “If you can find FSC-certified tropical hardwood decking—which is selectively cut—you’re helping create an economic value for a standing forest in the Amazon, thereby preventing it from being cleared for agriculture or for cattle grazing,” Harrington says. Michael Washburn, Ph.D., FSC’s VP of forestry and marketing, says, “When local people see value in forests being forests, they keep the ecosystem in place.” Washburn adds that while the availability of FSC-certified hardwoods is still limited, it’s growing quickly.

Ipê is a tropical hardwood that’s become a popular decking material over the last few years and is grown and harvested in South America. Harrington cautions, however, that ipê may not be the best choice. “Ipê is rarely available certified, and the noncertified wood is coming from the clear cutting of pristine Amazonian jungle.”

One wood that’s just starting to make its way into U.S. markets is tauari (pronounced “toe-are-ee”), also called Brazilian oak. It may not be widely available to consumers yet, but both Har­rington and Percivalle tout its durable performance and creamy, light-brown beauty as a great alternative to ipê. Tauari retails for significantly less than ipê, which has gone up in price by 15 percent since 2003, according to Percivalle. As of press time, one-by-six-certified ipê decking from EarthSource sells for about $2.70 a linear foot compared to $1.75 a foot for tauari. The same size redwood board runs roughly $1.80 a foot.

Other tropical woods such as massaranduba, Santa Maria, and machiche are harder to find FSC certified but are also good choices. Remember, shipping costs can be substantial and hardwoods can be difficult to work with.

Recycled plastic or composite decking is also an option (see “Lumber Without Logging,” this page). While some consider this a more environmentally sound alternative than wood, there are concerns. As with other decisions, the best choice is the one you can live with.

DON'T contribute to deforestation by building a deck made of wood harvested from old-growth forests.

DO consider using ­sustainably harvested wood certified by the Forest Steward- ship Council or ­recycled decking.

What's On Deck: Decking Options

Redwood
What it looks like: deep reddish brown color
Pros: Readily available as an FSC-certified wood from U.S. forests
Cons: Large sap content, so it's not as hard as tropical woods; degrades faster.

Cedar
What it looks like: Varies in color from light brown to deep red
Pros: Easy to work with and naturally resistant to bugs and rot
Cons: Very difficult to find FSC certified

Ipê
What it looks like: Dark olive-brown with some light-brown streaks
Pros: Very hard and durable wood that lasts decades
Cons: Moderate to difficult to find FSC certified

Tauari
What it looks like: Creamy light brown with wavy grain
Pros: Less expensive, easy to work with. Good alternative to ipê
Cons: Not yet readily available FSC certified

Massaranduba
What it looks like: Light to dark reddish brown with straight and fine grains 
Pros: Durable, pretty tropical hardwood
Cons: Hard to find FSC certified

Machiche
What it looks like: Yellowish brown 
Pros: Tropical hardwood with excellent durable qualities
Cons: Grain can be course and the wood hard to work. Somewhat rare FSC-certified product.

Non-Wood Decking
What it looks like: Various colors and wood-grain appearance
Pros: Good alternative to cutting down trees
Cons: Doesn't biodegrade/recycle


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