Creating Circular Economies with Ben Christensen: CEO/Founder of Cambium Carbon – Ep. 57

About Ben Christensen:

What’s the best part about an amazing entrepreneur story?

You hear what they’re doing, and you think… Really? No one’s ever done that before? Come on… Can’t be…

Well we’ve got such a tale today. For so long, we’ve internalized the idea that you can’t build a business without harming the planet, or that doing something sustainable isn’t good business sense. Ben Christensen is out there proving that win/win/wins are truly possible, and in my opinion, his is one of the most exciting business models I’ve heard so far.

These are the kind of scalable solutions we need if we’re going to survive as a species. Ben Christensen is the co-founder and CEO of Cambium Carbon, a company creating a ground-breaking new ecosystem for locally sourced, carbon-smart wood. When you hear what he’s doing, you’ll be stunned just as I was.

Full Audio Conversation:

Ben Christensen Links:

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EPISODE HIGHLIGHTS & RESEARCH sources:

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1:24 – “A circular economy model is one where it thinks about bringing those resources in as an input, selling those products and then reinvesting in that sort of quarry.”

3:09 – “[I] recognized [that trees] are a problem that I really, really care about, and this is a problem that is, you know, unbelievably complicated and has lots of fascinating solutions and different ways to take that. And so that’s how I really started on the journey. I studied it and it’s been a it’s been a long road to get to where I am today, but I have been committed to it for a long time.”

5:55 – “I wanted to create a solution that was scalable. And for me, that means not just, environmentally scalable, where as we get bigger, we are better for the planet instead of being worse. But also one that is financially scalable, so that it allows for that type of growth and the type of catalytic impact that we want to see at a national and a global scale.”

11:22 – “Look at what happens to trees that are getting cut down in your neighborhood. Watch what’s happening to that wood. Because most of the time that wood is being cut up into really small pieces. It’s turned into mulch. And oftentimes it’s even burned or sent into these really bad pathways for re-use or for the climate as well.”

13:49 – “We spent a lot of time and continue to spend a lot of time really trying to listen and understand what is the real problem.”

16:44 – “…to manage your trees well—to be able to plant new trees and in particular to be able to manage the trees that are coming down through infrastructure and some other parts of that, you create a ton of jobs. And so this is really awesome opportunity to bring in economic development and job creation into the climate conversation.”

27:00 – “And so part of really being able to save this waste stream is learning, ‘how do we use those species well?’ and creating the demand for them? So many of these species have amazing value. They have an amazing story, but they’re not mainstream. They’re not something we would traditionally harvest from the forest.”

30:00 – “We have six full time [employees]. We are adding in two more in the next month, and then we will be probably adding about eight to ten more in the next six months. So we’re growing really quickly because of the demand for this wood.”

33:26 – “The core point there is we’re trying to build a company that’s actually doing good, and doing that really involves more holistic thinking. And so if you’re thinking more holistically, you also should be thinking about funding more holistically.”

37:06 – “But I reached out to [my mentor]. I called, we started talking. We now talk every week. He’s been totally catalytic in my thinking. He’s also one of our lead investors in the pre-seed round, and it all just happened from finding an email and really being curious.”

39:55 – “You get these early wins that really help build momentum and help start you moving. But you’re also always super vulnerable just for tripping and like one thing goes wrong and it can all be downhill really, really quick.”

43:06 – “What we’re building is ultimately a two-sided marketplace. So we are connecting suppliers—people who are able to take a waste stream and turn it into something higher value—with buyers.”

50:06 – “There’s about 60 billion new trees that could be planted in the U.S. So there’s a lot, which is a huge opportunity and we should be going after it.”

54:01 – “Maintain a sense of optimism. Find people around you who are going to really help you be the best version of yourself.”

RESEARCH NOTES ON Trees & Carbon: 

Yard waste / wood waste definition 

“North Carolina statutes and regulations governing wood waste classify the material as “yard waste.” Despite the term’s connotations, yard waste includes more than just leaves and

downed limbs in private yards. It also includes the wood waste from trees in parks, cemeteries,

and greenways, and from trees along roadways on public and private land in both urban and

suburban areas. Yard waste is made up two types of wastes: land-clearing debris and yard trash.”

Source: https://ncforestservice.gov/Urban/pdf/NCEX_urban-wood-waste-managing-communitys-resource.pdf

Authors: Karla Heinen, Megan Lawler, Melissa McHale, M. Nils Peterson 

Stats

  • “EPA estimated that the generation of yard trimmings in MSW was 35.4 million tons in 2018, which is 12.1 percent of MSW generation.”

Source: https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/yard-trimmings-material-specific-data

  • In 2017, Americans generated 18 million tons of wood waste from residential, commercial, and institutional sources.

Source: https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2019-11/documents/2017_facts_and_figures_fact_sheet_final.pdf

What happens to dead urban trees 

“Urban trees, varying in growth rate, species, and size, are a challenge for traditional sawmills to process and sort. Both in Michigan and across the United States, dead urban trees are usually treated as trash and end up in landfills, burned, dumped on private land, or left to decay in woodlots. If they do find a second life as wood products, they are most often turned into firewood, mulch, or boiler fuel.”

Source: https://www.eesi.org/articles/view/turning-urban-wood-waste-into-local-sustainable-opportunities

Written by Celine Yang

Where does the urban wood waste go?

“Nationally, tree removals in urban areas account for approximately 14.0 to 34.5 million green

tonnes per year (McKeever and Skog, 2003; Bratkovich et al., 2010).”

“In the past, much of the urban waste wood was dumped in landfills or burned. However, regulations and fees have made this approach impractical (Lough, 2012). Other popular uses of urban waste wood have included firewood and chips for mulch (Plumb et al., 1999). In a survey of urban landscape waste residue in the U.S. (Whittier et al. 1995), 67% of residue went to chips and 15% to unchipped logs. The most common residue disposal method was “give away” (42%), followed by landfill (17%).” 

Source: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1618866719303656

Authors: David J. Nowak, Eric J. Greenfield, and Ryan M. Ash

Untapped potentials of urban wood waste

Every year, 36 million trees come down in cities across the United States due to old age, disease and new development, resulting in economic losses up to $786 million each year. Much of this wood could become valuable products, but instead often gets chipped, thrown in a landfill or burned as firewood. Rethinking urban wood waste could be an unexpected climate and economic solution, turning a burden on the climate and city budgets into a financial engine for reforestation across the broader landscape.”

Source: https://www.wri.org/insights/bringing-new-life-fallen-urban-trees

Written by Todd Gartner and Ben Christensen 

Views on trees disposal

“The disposal of dead, unsound or unwanted urban trees is often seen as a drain on resources and a cost impediment to achieving other program accomplishments.”

“As one tree warden put it, ‘Why is it, in the rural forest, it is not until a tree is cut down that it

gains economic value, while in the urban forest, it seems all of the value is in the tree only while

it is alive and still standing? Once they are cut down, urban trees are often seen as nothing more than an expense.’”

Source: https://www.gardenclubofnewhaven.org/uploads/9/3/4/3/9343583/biomass_final-6-29-14.pdf

Written by Chris Donnelly and Gabriela Doria

How cities benefit from reusing wood waste

“Jobs — such as hazardous tree removal, lumber processing and building furniture — are created. Cities save money because they don’t have to pay for wood waste to be thrown away, energy costs are reduced and fewer social programs are needed (due to the uptick in jobs created by this new economy). Cities also make money through new revenue streams from offering city-harvested wood products.”

Source

https://www.americanforests.org/magazine/article/innovation-turning-waste-to-wealth-with-a-wood-reuse-economy/

Uses of wood waste 

“While there are many examples, cities in Wisconsin are exceptional in their efforts to use wood from local urban trees. Through Wisconsin Urban Wood (WUW), a network of independent businesses, arborists identify eligible sawlogs among trees destined for removal. This includes 22 million ash trees threatened or killed by the emerald ash borer. Local custom mill houses then process the logs and sell the lumber or turn it into enduring goods (Figures 1 and 2). In 2016, WUW experimented with selling wood using an auction website to increase profits.”

Source: http://extension.msstate.edu/publications/waste-not-want-not-using-urban-wood-waste-benefit-communities

Reforestation hub initiative

“‘Cambium’s aim is to build “reforestation hubs,’ a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership that restores city forests across the U.S. The company hopes to raise funds to plant trees in urban natural areas by valuing their benefits — like the raw wood material they provide and their ability to absorb carbon dioxide — to help turn the tide of urban forest loss.”

Source: https://environment.yale.edu/news/article/reforestation-hubs-coming-soon-to-a-city-near-you-

Case study: Utilization of wood waste – Willard Brothers Woodcutters

“Utilization of urban tree removals is a result of the processing and marketing capability of this company. Firewood and mulch made from branchwood, log slabs, planer shavings, and trimmings create a complete picture of utilization of a resource that at one time was a significant disposal problem and costly. Willard Brothers Woodcutters now uses this resource to provide jobs and revenues for the company and products for societal needs.”

Source: https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/documnts/fplgtr/fplgtr133.pdf

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