GRAPHICS BY AMBER TAYLOR
Lumber mills generate tons of wood waste in the twigs, bark, branches and needles not used for lumber. “There is a constant push in our department to find alternative uses for this wood waste,” says Lech Muszynski, an assistant professor in the Department of Wood Science and Engineering at Oregon State University. Muszynski says the waste can be turned into a “flour” that makes a composite hybrid material when mixed with thermoplastic. He is experimenting with using that material for highway infrastructure, such as mileposts, sound walls, dividers and temporary snow fences. Those structures are currently made out of metal, concrete, petroleum-based plastic, or more expensive wood, materials with “a relatively high carbon footprint.” Though the composite is also petroleum-based, it contains less plastic. A small pilot study funded by OSU is being conducted with pavement markers. The study is identifying cost savings, determining the right ratios of wood waste flour to plastic, and studying reactions to ground contact and UV exposure. Muszynski is currently seeking funding and is already discussing commercialization with ODOT, which tells him the material has promise. “It’s not a very complicated or very expensive manufacturing process,” he says.