I arranged to visit a eucalyptus veneer and plywood mill in Guaiba, in the very south of Brazil. Having worked alongside Boise in the UK, I was very interested in finding out more about a new development in Boise's timber engineering business. After all, it would have been a shame not to, since we were in that neck of woods so to speak!
Like the Scandinavians and their new pulp and paper mill in Salto, Uruguay, US-based forest products company Boise have discovered a new way to stay one step ahead of the competition by incorporating Eucalyptus Grandis trees into their mix of raw materials. Eucalyptus Grandis grow 365 days a year and at an unbelievably fast rate. Boise recognised this years ago and set out to research the economical, technical and environmental benefits of incorporating eucalyptus veneers into their mix of other softwood veneers at their LVL (Laminated Veneer Lumber) manufacturing facility in Alexandria, Louisiana. The years of research proved that there were major benefits to be had from this process and as a result they now have a fully operational veneer peeling and plywood plant located in the south of Brazil, in close proximity to huge stands of plantation eucalyptus. They acquired about 35,000 acres of existing eucalyptus plantation land in 2001 and the mill was built shortly afterwards.
Mike Browne, the company's MD very kindly took the time out of his busy schedule to collect me from the airport, put me up in his home and the following day take me out to see a large eucalyptus plantation followed by a mill tour.
The trees that were being harvested on that day were between 35-40 metres tall and with a bottom diameter between 400-600mm - yet that plantation was only about 15 years old! That's what it's all about - fast growing eucalyptus! Trees in other parts of the world can take up to 3-4 times longer to reach the same dimensions. At such an astonishingly fast rate of growth, it's easy to understand how the economics stack up.
Eucalyptus wood also provides technical benefits for the LVL product. The mechanical properties of eucalyptus veneer help to make the end-product stronger, which means that the LVL beams and LVL-flanged I-joists can span further than if only softwood veneers from locally grown trees were used.
Another interesting fact is that eucalyptus trees are largely self-pruning. Due to natural shading in the forest, branches continually die off and fall to the ground. This saves on both pruning (which helps trees to grow straight, which is a big advantage later on in the mill) and branch removal at harvesting time. Because there are so few branches on the trees, there are very few knots in the veneers - handy! As if all that wasn't enough, the trees also shed most of their bark in the forest, which saves on laborious de-barking processes at the mill. The branches and bark fall to the forest floor serving two very useful purposes. Firstly, the debris gives traction to the harvesting machines when the soil is wet and muddy. Secondly, and more importantly, it replaces essential nutrients in the soil which allows the same land to be replanted shortly afterwards.
Overall, it was a really interesting visit and definitely worth making the trip from Rio. Seeing Boise's Brazilian operation at first hand certainly gave me a much better understanding of the end products that I was working with back home in Ireland and the UK.