Forestry industry maps out a greener, more sustainable future
EDMONTON - Canada’s forestry industry has been under the gun this decade, facing devastating beetle damage, softwood-lumber tariff battles with the U.S. and attention from environmental groups over logging practices and pollution.
In Alberta, mills have to compete with the higher wages paid by the oil industry and the public perception that forestry is a low-tech, “sunset” industry.
But a green breeze has begun to blow, first with a major agreement on boreal-forest logging reached with environmental groups last spring and now with the “bio-pathways project,” launched after two years of work by the Forest Products Association of Canada.
“This is a national initiative to get the message out, to talk about the next generation of forestry, a green ‘sunrise’ industry that can compete for new markets,” said Catherine Cobden, the association’s vice-president of economics and regulatory affairs.
The association is planning a symposium next month in Alberta to discuss with the oil industry the benefits of partnering with the forestry industry — such as using biomass as a heat source — as one way to improve its green credentials.
The recently released bio-pathways project outlines specific areas in which a wide range of bio-products that come from wood fibre can be used — and are already.
“Your HD TV has a component based on wood, and forest-based medicines have a great future,” Cobden said.
The best-known today is paclitaxel, an anti-tumour agent originallyisolated from the bark of the western yew. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) predicts the bio-economy (which includes forestry) will contribute 10 to 14 new drugs a year by 2015 and will be responsible for 10 per cent of global chemical production by 2030.
The bio-pathways study identifies a potential global market of about $200 billion for new uses from wood.
And it says the most effective approach is to add processes to existing operations, in effect turning sawmills and pulp mills into bio-refineries that would produce cogeneration for district heating, ethanol and diesel plus high-value biochemicals in addition to traditional products such as lumber and pulp and paper.
Innovations could include bio-active paper — paper towels that can indicated contamination or medical masks than can remove viruses.
In aerospace, nanocrystalline cellulose composites from wood fibres can replace some materials in aircraft, and wood-based textiles could take the pressure off the rapidly shrinking world cotton supply.
Perhaps the most immediate new product will be cross-laminated timber (CLT), a technology that produces strong beams and panels. It already is used in Europe to build five- to nine-storey buildings.
One CLT building in Norway is 20 storeys high, and there are plans to build 36-storey CLT towers with concrete infill — all meant to replace steel and some concrete in commercial and large residential buildings with a sustainable, green product.
CLT pilot projects are underway in Canada.
While Europe is the world leader in finding new uses for wood, Canada is far behind in applying the latest research and development.
“We need government help to get this new technology out to the industry. There is real commercial potential here for the Canadian forestry industry,” Cobden said.
“We are a sunrise industry, a cornerstone of the new bio-economy.”