Recent media reports have suggested that one of Canada’s oldest economic sectors, the forest products industry, is becoming a bit tarnished. As one prominent newspaper put it, the industry is in great need of some razzmatazz. After all, the market for paper products has been shrinking and the malaise in the American housing market continues to depress demand for lumber. Might the mighty forest products sector of the past be on its way to fading into the sunset?
Well, fear not. Traditional lumber and pulp and paper mills are now looking at producing innovative new products, all based on wood from our facilities’ waste streams. Some exciting examples include jet fuel, bio-plastics, and futuristic ultra-light-weight materials. In essence, the sector is embracing a snazzy new vision that is helping to transform it and turn yesterday’s traditional lumber-jacks-in-plaid sector into a dynamic sunrise business producing innovative, renewable bio-products. The forest products sector of old is helping lead the way in establishing Canada as a global player in the new bio-age.
Biomass from trees already fuels more than two-thirds of the energy requirements of the member companies of the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC), and surplus generation is being sent to the electricity grid to power homes. The Canadian pulp and paper sector produces renewable energy from biomass at a level equivalent to three nuclear reactors—enough to power both Edmonton and Calgary or all of the Maritime provinces.
But the bio-revolution in Canada’s forest products industry is about more than just helping produce the kind of clean energy that is increasingly attractive in a world concerned about the environment and escalating oil prices.
Our operations are morphing into bio-refineries that extract more valuable products from every tree harvested. By adding these novel technologies into our existing operations, wood from our waste streams can produce light bio-plastics for car parts, non-toxic green chemicals suitable for food processing, and rayon used in clothes. And there are many other exciting possibilities on the near horizon. Imagine producing rubber tires containing wood derivatives that enhance their properties or producing smart bio-active paper and packaging that could indicate food freshness, provide allergen alerts, or remove pathogens from water.
The most exciting development may lie in the possibilities inherent in producing an ultra- sophisticated new material called nanocrystalline cellulose. This novel product has incredible properties. For example, it is as much as eight times stronger than stainless steel and has unique colour features. These properties suggest that it could be used in airplanes, lipstick, and even bulletproof vests. The forest industry innovation leader, FPInnovations, is now working with industry partners on a demonstration plant in Quebec that could soon produce nanocrystalline cellulose at commercial levels.
Yesterday’s waste stream is rapidly becoming tomorrow’s revenue stream. The traditional lumber and pulp and paper sectors are continuing to incorporate the production of these new bio-products as side businesses that can reap tremendous value and capture niche markets around the globe. Recent reports predict the market for bio-products is growing rapidly, with estimates that it will reach $200 billion/year by 2015.
So when we in the forest industry look at trees, we must remember to think beyond wood and newsprint. We must also think of their potential for renewable fuels, innovative new medicines, renewable fabrics, and more.
Now that’s razzmatazz.
Catherine Cobden is vice-president of economics for the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC). She supports FPAC member companies on issues such as forest sector transformation, taxation, competition, energy, and rail policy, and is also responsible for the bio-pathways project, an innovative look at the opportunities available for the forest products industry in the emerging bio-economy. Visit FPAC’s website at www.fpac.ca.