Recycling Sandy’s Trees

In response to Hurricane Sandy, EPA has been supporting FEMA and working closely with federal agencies and the states of New Jersey and New York to assess damage and respond to environmental concerns. In some areas, storm damage is widespread and the first and immediate priority is the protection of people’s health and their safety. To see more about EPA’s activities in response to Hurricane Sandy please visit

Using a portable sawmill to cut the logs. EPA photo via Stan Stephansen

By Stan Stephansen

The headlines read “Hurricane Sandy Downs Thousands of Trees, creates havoc and destruction,”  “Record number of trees downed by Hurricane Sandy,” “10,000 trees downed in NYC alone.”  What a waste, or is it?

What happened to all those trees?  Are they still lying on the ground?  Were they cut up and carted off to take up space at the landfill?  Or is there some way these trees could be reused and recycled?

I asked myself that same question several years ago when I needed to remove several oak trees that were either dying or dangerously close to my house.  It turns out that, yes, indeed, many of the downed trees can and should be recycled and re-purposed.   I was able to turn the downed trees into structural timbers, flooring, molding, and bookshelves.  The large branches were cut into firewood and the smaller branches and leaves were turned into mulch.  I also replanted trees, but this time further away from the house.

The first step in tree recycling is to evaluate the trees and determine which ones are good candidates for recycling.  Generally, the tree should be healthy, not rotten, with few embedded objects like nails, of good size with a straight trunk and few low branches.  Right off I was able to save hundreds of dollars by not having the tree service cut up the tree trunks for subsequent trucking and disposal at the landfill.

Next step is to have the logs cut into rough lumber for subsequent reuse.  This can be accomplished by using a portable sawmill, or in my case having someone with a portable sawmill come to the location and cut the logs into rough boards of the appropriate dimensions.  For flooring and molding, I had the logs cut into boards about one and one half inches thick, which I then loaded onto a trailer and delivered to a regional sawmill in the Catskills for subsequent drying and finishing (surface planing and grooving), so that the final product was beautiful 5 inch wide red and white oak flooring ready to be put down in my bedroom and walk-in closet.  Other finished boards were used for molding around new windows and doors.  Another approach is to simply truck the logs to the sawmill for rough cutting, drying, and finishing.  Two sources of information I found useful were the book “Harvesting Urban Timber, A Complete Guide” by Sam Sherrill and “Recycling Municipal Trees, A Guide for Marketing Sawlogs from Street Tree Removals in Municipalities”.

With all of the downed trees from Hurricane Sandy, and thousands of downed trees expected from future storms, it may be more efficient and sustainable to try and recycle these logs on a more local or regional level.  Partnerships could be developed with municipalities, homeowners, utility companies, parks departments, recycling departments, nonprofits, and trade and technical schools to help create local jobs to help improve both the local economy and the environment.

About the author: Stan Stephansen is a Scientist in the EPA Region 2 office in Manhattan.  Stan has worked for EPA for 23 years in a variety of positions.  In his current capacity, Stan is working with our partner states to help municipalities develop plans to reduce sewage overflows caused by heavy wet weather events.  Prior to EPA, Stan worked as a geophysicist and computer analyst/programmer.  Stan is a graduate of Brooklyn College and currently resides in Wayne, NJ.

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