Forests and wood-based bioproducts are more topical than ever
What could be the forest industry’s green gold in the future – in a decade or two, even in a century, say in 2117? The question is important, since the forest industry in Finland and around the world is experiencing a renaissance, visible in the robust growth in the demand for wood-based bioproducts, new products with increasingly better properties and possibilities introduced by digitalisation.
Demand for pulp, paperboard, tissue paper and wood products continues to grow in Europe, Asia and the Americas, with the importance of China in particular increasing in terms of wood products. According to a forecast by the research organisation Pellervon taloustutkimus (PTT), exports of Finnish pulp alone will grow by 6–8 per cent this year, with this growth doubling next year. Paperboard exports are also at a record high level thanks to recent investments, with a clear 5–7 per cent growth this year, while demand for printing paper is declining at a steady rate of approximately 4 per cent a year. Exports of wood products also seem to be experiencing clear growth of up to 7 per cent.
This coincides with the globally shared interest in curbing climate change. The change towards a bioeconomy and a world free of fossil fuels and materials is already happening in many countries, including Finland. Responsibly produced, wood-based bioproducts are a sustainable alternative to products made from fossil-based, non-renewable natural resources, and the renewable northern wood raw material that binds carbon is more topical than perhaps ever before.
“The forces behind this change are megatrends: urbanisation, population growth and the growth of consumption. The world's population is estimated to increase by more than a billion people over the next ten years, and there’s an increasing need for materials. The need for textile fibres will grow, for example, but we are facing the ecological limits of cotton production. New fibres that are less burdensome on the environment are also needed to replace oil-based synthetic fibres. In packaging and construction, for example, wood-based products are already replacing fossil materials fairly frequently,” says Riikka Joukio, SVP, Sustainability and Corporate Affairs at Metsä Group.
The view into the future is opened by a research and development project from Metsä Fibre that aims for a pulp-based textile fibre to be introduced to the international markets in cooperation with the Japanese company Itochu Corporation. The project has already reached the pilot-plant stage. Another interesting future segment of the forest industry is the use of a pulp production side stream, lignin, in materials, the potential of which is also being studied at the moment.
“New products are being developed all the time. Therefore, the question is how to develop new products and successfully create a market for them on the basis of this research,” says Joukio.
Digitalisation is also providing new perspectives on the future of the forest industry and is making forests increasingly intelligent. The more efficient use of data concerning the growth of forests and collected from forest environments is reflected throughout the industry's value chain – from forest ownership to forest management, mill environments and innovations – in ways we can’t even imagine yet.