I first learned about the bioeconomy five years ago, when the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI) was preparing its roadmap to a low-carbon economy. The bioeconomy is based on the use of renewable raw materials – that is, the natural circular economy. At the time, the idea had emerged that the forest industry was an essential part of the bioeconomy, and new products and technologies were being envisioned. Wood as a renewable raw material began to gain new significance.
The bioeconomy has since become a familiar concept in Finland. A national bioeconomy strategy has been prepared, and the bioeconomy is one of the key projects of the new Government Programme. The definition of bioeconomy has become more modern and inspiring: the bioeconomy also seeks to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, prevent the weakening of ecosystems, facilitate economic development and create new jobs. Bioeconomy operators play an important role in the circular economy, where the manufacture and use of products is designed in a manner that eliminates waste and allows materials to be recycled, re-used and kept in circulation, retaining their value.
The bioeconomy is largely based on forests in Finland, whereas it is mostly associated with agriculture elsewhere in Europe. Still today the discussion on the bioeconomy focuses on biofuels. Not enough attention is being paid to biomaterials and biochemicals. Products made from renewable wood can be used to replace products made from fossil raw materials. The final decision is up to the consumer: will I buy my food in paperboard packaging or plastic wrapping?
Renewal and new products are expected of the forest industry. However, there are existing products that have systematically been developed for decades and that hold considerable potential. For example, folding boxboard for consumer packaging is a basic product that has been used for a long time. If folding boxboard had remained unchanged since the early 1990s when I started my career at a paperboard mill, it would have lost its competiveness long ago. Today, paperboards are markedly purer, more lightweight and more ecological than before.
The bioproduct mill in Äänekoski is one of the largest investments in the bioeconomy in Europe. It is a prime example of combining the old and the new bioeconomy. It will produce pulp, but the other constituents of wood will also be separated out during the production process. These side streams will be used to manufacture a wide selection of bioproducts, and the pulp will be processed into new products, such as textile fibres.
The side streams will also generate a great deal of bioenergy. The bioproduct mill will increase the share of renewable energy in Finland by more than two percentage points. The forest industry is already generating 70 per cent of all renewable energy in Finland. The investment decisions that have already been made in the Finnish forest industry will use up the extra harvesting potential for wood in the country. For this reason, the direct burning of upgradable wood must not be subsidized, as this distorts competition in the market for wood. In terms of value creation as well, wood fibre should be used as a product and reused, keeping it in circulation.
Much has happened during the past five years, but much still needs to be done. The promotion of the bioeconomy and its products call for research, development, innovation, highly competent labour, funding and favourable legislation. The bioeconomy needs raw material: sustainably managed wood. Products have been created and developed in response to challenges posed by sustainability, but awareness needs to be increased among consumers so that they make more sustainable choices. It is important that the Finnish forest industry becomes known as a strong player in the bioeconomy within the EU. This will facilitate the transition into a low-carbon bioeconomy and will create a positive image for Finland. In other words, growing forests continue to be our strength.
SVP, Sustainability and Corporate Affairs