Wood Substitutes

We Pagans love wood. We love the look of it, the smell of it, the feel of it, the sound of it popping in fire. As more and more of our forests are cleared for various reasons, including for our products, it is clear we need to be looking toward substitutes, instead, as well as sustainable forestry. But with so many kinds out there, are there any that are truly more environmental than others?

Descortiçadores have been harvesting cork with axes for thousands of years.

Descortiçadores have been harvesting cork with axes for thousands of years.


Until the 19th century, paper’s main ingredient was cloth rags. Now, of course, it is wood- and lots of it. The average American uses 749 pounds of paper per year (187 billion for the country), which contributes to a ton of deforestation. So, when choosing paper, look for FSC-certified paper or 100% post-consumer recycled. Or better yet, look for plant-based! Hemp, kenaf, or even sugarcane are great alternatives. Cotton, unfortunately, is a very thirsty plant that uses a lot of freshwater and should be avoided.

The good subs

Bamboo has got to be the most common wood alternative out there. This is because bamboo is extremely fibrous and regrows fast! Like superhero fast. In fact, you can audibly hear it grow (click the video above to do just that); some types can grow up to one yard in a single day. They also are a natural pest deterrent and so do not require pesticides. Just make sure the bamboo you’re buying wasn’t treated with formaldehyde and make sure you’re not buying bamboo cloth. Hemp or flax-based particle board is more common in Europe than North America due to the competitive market there. Theirs typically uses a plant-based binding agent but North America’s options all contain formaldehyde (pMDI) and is not as readily available….yet. As demand grows in North America, the binding agents will become cheaper and less toxic. Cork typically comes from Portugal (50%) and is actually the bark of the Cork Oak tree. This bark then regrows and can be reharvested after nine years for up to 20 times per tree. Afterward, the tree is just left alone to enjoy retirement. Pine needle composite is becoming popular in India and is a great alternative because of its natural resin. However, be sure the composite uses non-wood materials in its mix like cork, since the ratio to make this is typically 50:50.


the bad subs

Wood composites and MDF (Medium-Density Fibreboard) may sound eco-friendly because they’re typically made from deterred wood fiber and particles out of lumber facilities that would otherwise be pitched. However, these are all too often made with toxic chemicals and formaldehyde, and their veneers are usually plastic. Wood-plastic composite is both wood and thermoplastic resin, typically polyethylene-based- or just made from plastic alone. Thermoplastic is a type of common plastic material, a polymer, that can easily be molded at high temperatures and hardened when cooled, contributes to fossil fuel extraction, greenhouse gases, and does not biodegrade. That said,, sometimes these are made from recycled plastic, which uses a third of the energy to make than virgin plastic uses. Wheat straw is deterred from farmers that would otherwise burn it in the fields, but is still a composite with thermoplastic resin. Nut shell wood is similar in essence to the flax and hemp versions, except that its only resin used for it is formaldehyde-based.