Every year, Canada, the one of the world’s largest wood products producers, harvests about 155 million cubic meters of wood. Ninety percent of that wood comes from public lands, which are required to be managed sustainably to ensure continued production and maintenance of the important ecosystem services provided by forests. According to the Forest Products Associated of Canada, 96% of the volume of each tree harvested is used to make some kind of end-product. Any manager of a natural-resource-based or agricultural company would be proud to have such a high use rate. At the same time, a savvy businessperson might also see an opportunity in the remaining 4% – in Canada’s case, that’s about 6 million cubic meters of wood, enough to fill 19 oil tankers.
Some leaders in the plastics industry are seeing just such an opportunity. In Europe, the Rehap project, funded by the EU, has developed a way to convert forestry waste into 2,3-butanediol, which is a chemical building block currently sourced from crude oil which can be used to produce plasticisers and synthetic rubbers. The process works by breaking the waste wood products down into sugars, which can then be converted into the final product via fermentation.
The Rehap project isn’t the only European initiative aiming to make use of forestry waste. According to Pulp and Paper Canada, a forestry industry publication, VTT Technical Research Centre, located in Finland has also developed a method for converting forestry waste, including sawdust, bark, and small branches, into chemicals including liquid hydrocarbons, methanol, and methane. These chemicals are important precursors to many plastics feedstocks.
Back in North America, researchers working for Swedish company Tetra Pak have been working with an American university to develop a method to make plastics such as HDPE using forestry waste. The fact that a major company is investing in such an endeavour is a sign that the industry is taking the concept seriously.
The conversion of forestry by-products into plastics allows us to remove the carbon contained in those products from the carbon cycle while reducing the carbon dioxide released by producing the oil and gas products that are traditionally used to make plastics precursors. Also, unlike plastics precursors made from agricultural products such as the ethanol that is made from maize in North America, the production of forestry waste-based products does not require the use of land that could otherwise have been used to produce food for human consumption.