In search of an alternative to Russian birch

ProPopulus Team

With Russian and Belarusian birch plywood banned across Europe, the need for an alternative is on the rise.

European poplar wood from sustainably managed forests and plantations as well as European poplar plywood mainly produced in France, Spain, and Italy, comes in handy as a sound substitute, depending on the application’s technical and mechanical requirements.

Poplar is one of the most efficient trees in terms of sustainability. Poplar’s main advantage is its fast growth cycle of 10-15 years. It is also a “local” species, grown widely in Europe, mainly in France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, and Hungary.

The ban

On April 9th, 2022, the fifth package of sanctions against Russia, issued by the European Union in response to the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, came into force.

The additional measures (*) laid down in the regulations, including among others, the ban on imports of timber and forest-based products from Russia. Belarus, another significant birch and birch plywood producer, has also been subjected to sanctions restricting imports of forestry and forest-based products.

Thus, the ban, including Russian and Belarusian birch and birch plywood –widely used in the European construction, formwork, and transport sectors­– has left a vacuum in the market.

(* To consult the full ban on wood products (inc. Plywood) imports from Russia implemented on the 5th sanctions package, please click here. To review the sanctions implemented on Belarus, click here.) 

Birch in Europe

In Europe, birch is one of the main species used to produce plywood.

The major European birch producers are Finland and the Baltic States where there is the availability of the raw material. In Poland local birch is used to manufacture birch plywood and, in combination with other hardwoods, to produce the so-called combi plywood.

Birch plywood accounts for only 5% of the global production volume. However, in the last decade, its consumption has reached almost 5 million m3, driven by an increase in the demand by high-end-use segments.  Europe is the largest consumer of birch plywood, with an estimated 45% of global consumption.

According to various reports, in the last years, imports of Russian and Belarusian birch plywood to Europe have been of approximately 1.5 million m3 annually –which represents more than 20% of the total European plywood consumption market share–, with Germany, Poland, France, the Netherlands, Finland, and Italy as main consumers.

The total European birch plywood market is estimated to be around 2.2 million m3 with a domestic annual supply of 800-900 000 m3.

Thus, although there is domestic birch production in Europe ­–concentrated in Finland, Poland, and the Baltic States–, the combined production capacity is nowhere near to meet the demand because both, production capacities and raw material, are limited. This gives rise to opportunities for other products, such as European poplar plywood.

The risk of circumventing the ban on Russian goods

Following the ban on Russian and Belarusian forest-based products and logs, news reports warn about traders in the EU trying to evade the sanctions on Russian and Belarusian timber, by mislabelling wood as Central Asian.

Surprisingly, according to iNews “exports of Russian wood products have grown by 10% in the past six months to 14 million m3, according to the Russian Forestry Department. Mainly due to the increase in exports to Asian countries such as China and Uzbekistan”.

Other news advise about offers of Chinese plywood that most certainly contain Russian birch, whose import would also constitute a breach of the EU sanctions. In the UK, the Timber Development UK (TDUK) has warned importers and buyers about birch ply containing Russian wood being sold through unusual trade routes.

As a countermeasure to efforts to circumvent the EU sanctions against Russia and Belarus, the European Commission put forward on December 2nd, 2022 a proposal to criminalise any violation of said sanctions. The proposal is to be discussed by the European Parliament and the Council as part of the ordinary co-legislative procedure.

Currently, the import of Russian and Belarusian plywood and timber products can be penalised under multiple mechanisms, including:

  • Violation of anti-dumping investigation and imposed duties on Russian birch plywood, applicable to plywood products circumventing through third countries
  • Violation of PEFC and FSC chain of custody certificates as under both schemes timber from Russia and Belarus is considered conflict timber. This means that wood and other forest products can no longer be sourced as certified or controlled from Russia and Belarus for their inclusion in certified products anywhere in the world.
PEFC considers Russian Belarusian timber as “Conflict timber”, which means that “has been traded at some point in the chain of custody by armed groups…”
Due to the association of the forest sector in Russia and Belarus with armed invasion, no FSC-certified material or controlled wood from these countries will be permitted to be traded.

A possible sound alternative

Although traditionally poplar plywood applications have been linked to making furniture, door and window frames, carpentry, and packaging, its uses have evolved thanks to technological advances improving, among others, its durability and resistance to fire.

As a result, its use in interior fittings, where it offers lightness and strength, has grown considerably. It has also allowed the development, in combination with other wood species, of complex products for insulating external structures, capable of meeting fire safety and durability requirements, particularly useful in the construction sector.

According to a document published by the European Panel Federation, poplar plywood offers, in addition to technical performance, several advantages in terms of reducing the ecological and economic footprint of buildings, for example

  • Good value for money as a building material for structural or non-structural, exterior, or interior uses.
  • Excellent strength to weight ratio positively impacting on consumption (water, energy); handling (ease and secure installation).
  • Extendable lifespan: perfectly suited to modular construction and the circular economy. As it is easy to dismantle, the panel can be reused several times. As it is easy to maintain, it can withstand several renovations or finishing cycles.
  • Use for light frame construction solutions, in raw form, or as a complex product, offering mechanical, insulating, and decorative properties and a better carbon footprint than other alternatives.
  • Poplar plywood is Euro-local! produced in several locations in Europe (mainly France, Spain, and Italy), which contributes, in addition to supporting the European industry, to reduce the ecological footprint of the building or other work by reducing the logistical carbon footprint.

Thus, poplar plywood could be, to a certain extent and depending on the specific needs of each project, a sound alternative to Russian birch plywood, helping by alleviating the pressure on demand and to overcome the void left in the market by the sanction against Russian forest-based products.

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