In a typical lumber mill, logs are cut down into pieces of lumber, then sawed and planed into smooth boards for use as flooring or cabinetry. But at Modern Mill in Mississippi, workers don’t fell trees to make their boards. Instead of logs, Modern Mill uses rice hulls—a waste product from food production—to make what the company calls Acre, an upcycled, tree-free building material.
Growing demand for cheap wood products and tropical woods have been linked to deforestation. Each year, according to the Center for International Forestry Research, 2.5 million acres of land are converted to “fast-wood forests,” commercially planted forests that replace natural forests in order to meet the timber industry’s demand. Wood alternatives and composites have come into higher demand, but most composites still use trees in some way, like using compressed sawdust mixed with polymers. Acre is 100% tree-free, the company says, and can be stained or painted to replicate tropical woods. Acre by Modern Mill is the winner of the mid-sized business (100-999 employees) category of Fast Company’s 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards.
At Modern Mill, rice hulls that would normally sit in landfills are trucked over from rice suppliers and then ground up, mixed with other additives (a proprietary combination, though the company says more than 50% of the final product is rice hulls by volume), and extruded into sheets that can be cut down further into boards. If replacing exotic hardwoods like Ipe, one pallet of Acre can save an acre of tropical rain forest, per the company. When replacing softwoods grown on those managed forest lands (which are packed more densely), a pallet of Acre saves one tree, or one pallet of the equivalent lumber.
“Our product can be used for almost every application that wood can go into, with the exception of structural,” Rob Shugdinis, vice president of manufacturing and sustainability at Modern Mill. “They’re not two-by-fours, so you can’t frame a home or a building with it at this time, though we are trying to figure out how to do that.” Panels, flooring, decking, cabinetry, molding, and trim can all be made of Acre.
Rice hulls give the material beneficial properties, like resistance to water, mold, and pests. “If you think about what a rice hull does in nature, the rice hull’s job is to project the rice,” says Kim Guimond, chief marketing officer at Modern Mill. “The hull protects it from water, weather, pests, so all those properties transcend into the Acre product.”
In 2020, Modern Mill sold its first truckload of Acre, and in 2021 business expanded, with the product making its way into its first big-box store, Menards, and selling through distributors to homeowners, builders, and architects. In its first year of business, Modern Mill says it saved the equivalent of approximately 4,000 acres of tropical rain forest or 4,000 softwood trees, and also diverted more than 3,000 tons of rice hulls from landfill. Because the business is so new, Shugdinis says they haven’t really had to deal with the product’s end of life yet, but he added that Acre is completely recyclable; the company is working on a way to allow customers to return the material so it can be ground up and used again, adding another layer of circularity to the product.