What does “sustainability” mean to you?

Today, in the green industry, sustainability is much more than a buzzword. Sustainability is really about three things: ensuring a profitable business, being environmentally responsible and being an asset to the community. One way in which tree care companies can promote sustainability is by productively recycling wood waste, reaping economic as well as environmental benefits.

“[Recycling wood waste] is a simple way to add profit to a job and reuse the trees that we remove,” says Mark Malmstrom, International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist and owner of Total Tree Care Inc.  in Providence, Utah. Malmstrom’s company turns wood waste into profit in several ways, including mulching and milling. But Malmstrom says mulch (and wood chips) is king.

Lumber can easily be recycled and sold as firewood.ALL PHOTOS: ISTOCK

“The mulch and wood chips have been the most profitable and easiest,” Malmstrom says of the ways Total Tree Care profits from wood waste. “If we have a customer lined up, we just dump at their location when the truck is full of chips. We get paid to load it when we chip up trees, and the only real investment is some travel time.”

Add another tree care company owner to the “mulch is king” camp: Stacy Hughes, owner of Terry Hughes Tree Service in Omaha, Nebraska. Terry Hughes Tree Service, Omaha’s largest tree care company, has found mulch to be so profitable that they’ve opened two facilities just to handle that facet of the business. They even created a brand — Hughes Mulch & Soil. Stacy Hughes estimates his company — which totals about 40 employees — has invested $3 million into his booming and ever-growing mulching business. Terry Hughes Tree Service not only produces its own mulch, but it takes in mulch from other tree care companies not equipped, or willing, to handle it, as well as some from contractors.

“It started off in 2001,” Hughes says. “We were just trying to figure out what to do with our wood waste. We had lost the people who had been taking in our wood waste for years, and we had to figure out an end market for it. Fourteen years in, the mulch operation now has 10 full-time, year-round employees. We’re running three grinders, two semis, excavators … This is a significant investment for us.”

This “significant investment” means that Hughes Mulch & Soil offers mulch in four different colors, hardwood mulch, topsoil and planting soil mix, compost and firewood.

“We’re not rookies anymore,” Hughes says of his mulching business.


But it’s not just about the profit. Keeping that sustainability model in mind, Hughes is conscious of the environmental and communal benefits of reusing wood waste.

“We’re no longer burning anymore,” he says. “We’re recycling these trees and essentially putting them back into the ground.”

Hughes also notes that utilizing wood waste — by mulching, in particular — has brought his company additional marketing and business opportunities that wouldn’t necessarily be there with standard residential and commercial tree care operations.

“We’ve developed some great relationships with some landscapers in our market,” Hughes says.

Selling mulch to the community also can help to develop relationships with new customers. As Diane Dincher of Dincher & Dincher Tree Surgeons in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, told Tree Services magazine last year, “A lot of times [customers say], ‘When you come to deliver the mulch, could you take a look at this or that tree in my yard?’”

Branches and other wood waste can be chipped up into profitable mulch.

That’s marketing at its finest.

Going across the country to Redwood City, California, Econo Tree Service has found that redwood chips are another profitable way to use wood waste. The company manufactures its own redwood chips, which are extremely popular in the community. The chips can be used for things like landscape ground covers, gardens and composting.

Malmstrom’s Total Tree Care also reaps the benefits of producing wood chips.

“We sell chips as much as we can,” he says. “It all depends on where we are working and if it’s practical to deliver them to a customer. We sell most of our chips to a garden center and a tree nursery. We will also sell to individuals [who] order them; it’s a nice additional profit. If we can’t sell them, we have a number of free dump sites in the area that we’ll use. As a last resort we will take them to the green waste at the landfill. We never pay to dump chips, and all of our chips are recycled.”

Recycling — in terms of wood waste — doesn’t apply to just mulch and chips. Lumber also can be used profitably and productively.

Arborists have access to some of the most exotic urban hardwoods, many not available from any other source. Tree care companies can sell high-end wood to woodworkers or cabinet shops. For example, Malmstrom has sold black walnut and “a lot of elm, maple, honey locust, sycamore and other species.”

High-end lumber can be found in many types of urban wood projects. Think high-end, multi-use, long-lasting furniture.

“We have worked quite a bit with a local, high-end cabinet shop to produce, market and sell urban wood projects,” Malmstrom adds. “It doesn’t make sense to transport lumber hundreds, or thousands, of miles when there’s a lot of quality lumber in your neighborhood. We like to [utilize] it when we can.”

Keep in mind that, when crews are removing desirable wood species such as walnut or black cherry, care must be taken in how the logs are cut, in order to preserve their value. Equipment like log loaders can facilitate this process.

Lumber also can be recycled and sold as firewood. Most of the companies surveyed for this article process firewood into 16- to 20-inch logs. These can be sold to the public — consider adding delivery fees and/or stacking fees — or can be given to employees as a benefit. Even lower-quality chunk wood can be sold to customers with outdoor wood boiler heater systems.

At Econo Tree Service in California, firewood is a considerable source of profit, as seasoned oak that has been dried and split on site is sold and delivered to the community. The company offers free delivery to front doors, or allows customers to pick it up from their facility. It does charge a stacking fee.

Not everyone considers firewood profitable, however. At Total Tree Care, Malmstrom says, firewood requires a lot of work for not much economic benefit.

“For us [firewood] isn’t very profitable because we have to haul the wood to the wood pile, cut it, split it and then let it dry,” Malmstrom says. “We then have to load it and deliver. Mulch is much more simple. Unless it’s high-quality wood, we usually give it away or take it to the landfill.”

As Malmstrom mentioned, processing firewood can involve too many labor hours (cutting and splitting) and tie up equipment (or involve purchasing a firewood processor), so, depending on each company’s situation, it simply isn’t worth the time. Terry Hughes Tree Service chooses not to process its own firewood, concentrating instead on the mulch business. But it does buy firewood from other suppliers and re-sells it to its customers.

Some tree care companies also stockpile pulpwood and sell it to various parties, who turn it into paper. According to the California Integrated Waste Management Board, recycling 14 trees’ worth of paper reduces air pollutants by 165,142 tons.

Regardless of the method, productively using and recycling wood waste can be quite a nice addition to a company’s bottom line, if done properly and efficiently. Like anything else, adding resources (capital, equipment, employees) should be done only after all research is complete and numbers are crunched.

Hughes cautions that his success in this facet of tree care is 14 years in the making.

“It’s not as easy [as it seems],” he says. “I’ve seen so many companies jump into it and then have to jump right back out of it. Any company I’ve found that’s doing a true mulch operation side by side with [its] tree services ends up having probably $1 million invested in the first three to five years. The equipment … these are big-boy toys, and they have big-boy repairs. When you get into mulching, that is now manufacturing, as opposed to being [traditional tree care] services. It’s a different discipline with a different set of rules. People don’t seem to realize that.”

Read more: 3 things to know about reusing and profiting from wood waste