Wearing wood for a low-carbon life

Companies in Europe are developing and manufacturing more and more products made of wood. The aim is to find renewable and sustainable alternatives to fossil-based feedstocks to help fight climate change. This is what emerges from a report published by the EU project BioMonitor. But there’s still a long way to go.

Article - 09 Nov 2022

“Wood may be present in people’s life more than we think”, says Mariana Hassegawa, a researcher at the European Forest Institute. She is one of the authors of a case study on new wood-based products by the BioMonitor EU project. They found that wood-based products, which are often associated with lower greenhouse gas emissions than their fossil-based counterparts, are becoming part of our everyday lives in ways that sometimes we can’t even imagine, such as in textiles. But there are still challenges to overcome, she explains.

Talk to us about this case study.  

We were looking for innovative products that are either wood-based or somehow connected to the forest industry, materials that can play a role in climate change mitigation or solve problems like contamination of the environment with microplastics. Right now not all these products are on the market. For some, it will take a while to reach the market.

What kind of products did you find?

There are a lot of products being developed; many are already being manufactured. We have interesting solutions related to construction materials that are already being used in modern wood buildings, like cross-laminated timber (or CLT). CLT is mostly produced here in Europe, and the market will probably increase in the near future because of the development of several construction projects.

Another type of product is wood foam, which is used for insulation. This is just entering the market, but many companies are investing because it would solve the problem of using fossil fuels and it could be more easily recycled

A product that I find particularly interesting is wood-based fibres for textiles. A very common one is viscose, but that’s very old technology. Now we also have clothes made of lyocell, plus new fibres are being developed. This means many companies are investing in a production process that uses either less harsh chemicals or they don’t use chemicals at all to produce the fibres, reducing the environmental impacts.

And are these products affordable?

It depends on what we are comparing them to. For example, wood-based textile fibres are perhaps a bit more expensive than polyester. One of the things that came from our interviews with the companies is that they are aware they need to find a way to make them cost competitive. That’s why it takes a lot of time to develop these technologies. Not only to make them technically feasible but also economically feasible for the industries.

Why is it important to produce them?

Because forests and the forest industry contribute in three ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. First, forests capture the carbon from the atmosphere. Second, they store the carbon in the wood. For example, if you have a piece of furniture that is made of wood, the carbon will be stored for as long as that piece of furniture exists. And third, there are substitution effects, which happen when you replace a material that would be fossil-based or emissions intensive by a wood-based material.

But if we use wood-based materials, aren’t we contributing to the degradation of forests?

It is crucial that any wood product comes from sustainably managed forests. Also, many of the innovative wood-based products are manufactured using residues and waste that are nowadays mostly used for energy. We don’t need to cut more trees to produce many of these products.

Are politicians in Europe encouraging good practices in the forestry industry? 

We have the Green Deal, so yes, we see there’s an interest. The European Union is making some efforts, but the forest sector is different in each country, and can implement changes at a different speeds. In some cases, they can mobilize resources to develop products more quickly or focus on specific types of products that can take advantage of their natural resources and industrial capacity.

And what about citizens? Do you feel that they’re interested?

Some studies show that whenever there’s visible wood in buildings, this improves the well-being of the people who use those buildings. We see, for example, many libraries are built with wood and use wood elements. People already accept many of these materials very well, and they embrace the idea of having wood in these products. For other products, people are simply not aware of the use of wood. For example, in textiles: if you wear a t-shirt made of lyocell, you may not notice that it is made of wood-based fibre. Maybe you’ll think that it’s made of cotton.

But can we be sure that the production of these materials is environmentally friendly?

I think, as consumers, we have to be aware that all products have some impact to the environment. But companies should keep investing in the development of products that solve some problems like pollution and generation of waste. They can do so by producing things that can be recycled, or reused, or if you cannot recycle or reuse them, they can be biodegradable. Companies should also keep investing in producing things that use less energy, less water or water that can be recycled in the system, they can use fewer chemicals, and the chemicals can also be recycled in the same industry. Products from the industry should solve these problems without causing new ones. We saw this with what was called “biodegradable plastics”. In the end, we saw that they were not really biodegradable. They just broke down into smaller pieces –  microplastics – which are a problem to the environment.

Some companies already have these environmental concerns as a starting point. For example, we interviewed one company that was producing textile fibres, and they were using a lifecycle assessment as the basis for the development of the technology. They told us if they couldn’t produce something less impactful for the environment, they wouldn’t release it onto the market.

By Selene Verri

Photo credits: Spinnova