Riding the Biological Cycle: How Forest Fibre can Drive the Circular Economy

By Ken Hickson

If it sounds like we’re going around and around in circles, we are!

What keep us going around that is safe for the planet and people?

All materials which have a future. That don’t go to waste.

Take fibre from the forest.

Trees not only grow well in nature, they act as carbon sinks. That means they store carbon. Trees stop CO2 from clogging up the atmosphere and contributing to global warming.

The oceans act like that too, as long as we keep them clear of plastic pollution.

Forests and trees, when sustainably managed, says the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), make vital contributions both to people and to the planet, bolstering livelihoods, providing clean air and water, conserving biodiversity and responding to climate change

We need to be clear too, that most trees are planted for a purpose. Millions of hectares of trees the world over are in plantations, most of which are covered by Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) rules. PEFC, for example, has certified over 330 million hectares of forest.

Even when we cut down a tree to make use of the wood, we are still retaining the carbon intact. Unless we burn the wood.

But if we use the wood for furniture or building a home, we retain its goodness.

We can also take the fibre in the wood and turn it into paper for printing. Or for art, for that matter.

It also becomes a packaging material. Or we can turn the same fibres into textiles, for fashion garments or for furnishings.

What’s especially good about forest fibre is that it can be recycled and reused. Not endlessly, but paper can be recycled 6 to 8 times, depending on how we intend to reuse it.

It can also be combined with “virgin” pulp and paper to be used again and again. So paper – the fibre from the forests – has lasting qualities.

As long as don’t set it alight, fibre will never come to harm.

We can safely bury it and it will be good for the earth. But we can also continue to combine it with other materials – recycled or virgin – to turn it into packaging materials or for building insulation or even turned into fibreboards or for flooring.

So fibre from the forest – whether as wood, paper, packaging material or textile – never goes to waste.

Therefore it’s one of the best raw materials to contribute to the circular economy. As long it’s responsibly sourced and the supply chain is managed sustainably. That’s where Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) comes in, along with measuring and managing the Chain of Custody for the supply of wood for good.

Some might well think that this sounds strange. Choosing forest-based materials means cutting down trees in order to make these products. How does this protect them?

Of course, we can - and must - protect our natural forests and stop harmful deforestation. But when trees are planted and nurtured to be harvested, that’s forestry for a purpose.

When we buy forest products, such as wood and paper, this gives the forest value. It creates demand, and provides a financial incentive to keep a forest as a source of very useful fibre.

Let’s consider some examples of how we can make the best use of forest fibre. For people, planet and profit. The triple bottom line, as conceived by John Elkington.

What about replacing plastic packaging with wood fibre?

Jaakko Kaminen chose wood as the basis of a new, more environmentally friendly packaging material, because Finland's forests have an ample supply of it.

He explained that as forests also act as carbon sinks, and well-maintained forests are an important renewable natural resource, his company worked with the VTT research laboratory to come up with a suitable transparent plastic replacement product.

They came up with ​“Woodly”, a clear cellulose-based material similar to traditional oil-based plastic. It can be used to make a wide range of packaging solutions that imitate the best properties of plastic.

Another example from Europe.

The fresh fibre that Metsä Board uses to make paperboards is a premium raw material. It is renewable, highly functional, light and strong, whilst also naturally pure and safe making it ideal for demanding end uses, including food packaging.

Fresh fibre is also needed to safeguard the fibre supply. The same fibres cannot be recycled infinitely, because the fibres become gradually shorter and weaker loosing their good properties. If no fresh fibre entered the circulation, it would immediately result in a shortage of recycled fibre.

Metsa says that all of the wood fibre it uses comes from either its own pulp mills or from its associated company Metsä Fibre’s mills. 

Then we can see what Asia Pacific Rayon (APR) is doing in Indonesia, as the first fully integrated viscose rayon producer in Asia. From tree plantation to viscose fibre.

APR produces d biodegradable viscose rayon used in textile products from natural pulp derived from wood.:

  • The natural fibre in viscose-rayon is sourced from sustainably-managed renewable plantations. Abundant sunlight and rain in the equatorial climate equates to an impressive growth rate which means these farmed trees can be harvested in as short as five years.

  • Proven technology in the chemical recovery helps in the capturing and reusing of chemicals and energy (which will be used for steam productionused in viscose manufacturing processes. At APR, we recover as much as 90% of the chemicals used in viscose production.The electricity used to power the integrated production line is generated by renewable biomass energy, maximising energy efficiency throughout the mill processes. By using 100% renewable biomass, APR is able to drastically reduce reliance on fossil fuels.