By Tony Kryzanowski
The Earth has a plastics problem being made worse by convenience services like “Skip the Dishes” and others aimed at making the lives of busy Millennials easier. Services like these are generating more single-use plastic items like foam cups, straws and takeout containers.
Over the past 75 years, plastic has become a ubiquitous presence in our society as we transitioned away from more expensive and less functional cellulose-based products like paper bags and wooden boxes.
But we are now paying a price because unlike bio-based packaging products, it takes plastic literally hundreds of years to break down and it is polluting our oceans, killing our marine life, and choking our landfills.
A social action group called ‘Waste Free Edmonton’, whose goal is to reduce plastic consumption, recently wrote that “a plastic bag has an average use of 12 minutes, yet it is a product that will outlast us by 1,000 years.”
Staff at the City of Vancouver recently reported that cups and takeout containers make up 50 per cent of items collected in public trash bins, as council discussed a ban on single-use items like straws and foam cups. The city passed a bylaw banning these plastic items next year.
According to Waste Free Edmonton, over 100 jurisdictions, including Victoria and Montreal, have implemented single-use bag bylaws. Anyone traveling to Hawaii will also discover that they have instituted a plastic bag ban as well.
From a forestry and bio-product perspective, these legislative and lobbying activities are great news. However, it also highlights the continuing and significant communication disconnect between those lobbying for greater use of biodegradable, single-use items and those with the products and technology to fill the void vacated by plastic.
Too often, we invest billions of dollars into cutting edge technology, like the development of bio-based building blocks that can be derived successfully and economically from forest residues, yet fail to achieve large-scale commercial uptake of this technology—primarily because consumers don’t know they exist and because industry loses interest.
The Canadian forest sector shares plenty of the blame for this disconnect. We become distracted by the euphoria of high softwood lumber, panelboard, and pulp prices, forgetting the importance of business diversification as a hedge against the next housing and pulp downturn—then knock on government doors looking for handouts when the industry experiences its typical downturn.
To the credit of both federal and provincial governments, they have helped when needed. However, we need to start to have a serious discussion between government and industry about how we can do a better job of communicating the availability of commercially viable bio-product technology and production—which brings me back to the issue of banning single-use items.
For bio-products to achieve greater market penetration, decisions like the ban instituted by the City of Vancouver and others is absolutely essential. However, it’s ironic that even as Vancouver takes this bold action, it never occurred to any representative group of the forest industry to meet with City Council to discuss possible collaboration to support development of forestry-based alternatives to these plastic products. This is in a province that is awash in forest products and residues. This is what I mean by the disconnect.
The same can be said for the Waste Free Edmonton group. While their goal is laudable, they seem to have no idea that Canada has made a significant investment in commercial production of cellulous nanocrystals (CNC) derived from wood that could function as a building block for the production of bio-product alternatives to plastic. While testing the efficacy of CNC as a building block to make lighter and stronger automobiles is a worthy goal, bio-composite developers hoping to break in with automakers have demonstrated that it can take years of research and testing before achieving more bio-product use in these sectors.
A decade ago, leading scientists pointed out that the success of CNC as a commercial product was in applications representing the lowest hanging fruit, examples being foam cups, takeout containers, and straws. Yet it hasn’t happened.
Furthermore, forest company West Fraser has a functional lignin extraction plant situated in Hinton, Alberta, capturing this natural adhesive material as part of the pulp manufacturing process. Chemical producer Hexion recently announced that it has successfully completed an expansion of its technology centre at its forest products complex in Edmonton. This expanded research and development facility is focussed on developing next generation resin chemistry for panel production, which will include using new resin material like natural lignin to create less toxic resins. So in addition to panelboard, it would seem logical that these resins could also be used as binding agents for bio-based cups, takeout containers, and straws.
Yet, there has been no indication by the Waste Free Edmonton group that they are even aware of this proven and existing technology—right in their backyard—that could be applied as a bio-product alternative to plastic.
For all our prowess in developing cutting edge communication tools, it is unfortunate that apparently we still seem to have great difficulty communicating.
On the Cover:
Hannah Dehoog of Smithers, B.C., is catching a lot of attention in the logging community. It’s not just her engaging presence on social media, but her determination and skill as a young female heavy equipment operator working in a decidedly male dominated industry. Read all about Dehoog and the logging work she is doing beginning on page 8 of this issue. (Cover photo courtesy of Tigercat).
Safety evolving with silviculture sector
The Western Forestry Contractors’ Association set out recently to gain an insight into how the silviculture sector has evolved—and where health and safety programs might need to be changed, to reflect that evolution.
There is a place for young women in Canada’s forest industry, and B.C.’s Hannah Dehoog is proof of that. She loves being in the bush operating logging equipment, and has run everything from skidders to leveling feller bunchers, doing steep slope work.
Big B.C. mill investments
The San Group, which recently acquired a mill operation on Vancouver Island, has some ambitious spending plans for its B.C. sawmill and reman operations, including adding a small log mill operation, with HewSaw equipment.
Dealing with the aftermath of forest fires—at the sawmill
B.C. forest company Tolko Industries is successfully handling fire salvaged timber from last year’s massive forest fires, thanks to some changes at their mill operations.
Tackling the tough job of fire salvage
Last summer’s forest fires in B.C. created a lot of salvage work for forest companies including Tolko Industries. But just as Tolko’s employees and contractors were up to the task of fighting the fires, they’re also up to the tough job of salvaging the fire-affected timber.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre and Alberta Innovates.
The Last Word
Tony Kryzanowski says the forest industry needs a better communications approach for advocating wood-based alternatives in the battle against plastic.