Forestry association sees exciting potential

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

There are exciting possibilities in the world of forest biomass and the products that can be made from them, and the northern regions of the province are

Ian Dunn, president and CEO of the Ontario Forest Industries Association (OFIA) gave a presentation during the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association conference at the Fort Frances Curling Club on Thursday, April 28 that focused on both the OFIA and provincial forests as well as some of the new opportunities available to the sector with the advances of new technology and businesses.

“Forest products are gaining a lot of attention right now globally,” Dunn said.

“The U.N. actually projects that over the next 10 years, global demand for forest products is going to increase by 10 percent, and that was before the pandemic. I would imagine that number has increased since then. Consumers are realizing that sustainable forest products are critical to a circular bioeconomy, and we’re seeing that in terms of a shift in preference in little things, for example, instead of plastic straws we have paper straws. Instead of plastic bags in a lot of grocery stores, we’re seeing paper bags come back. All of this presents an incredible opportunity for Ontario.”

Dunn noted that provinces such as B.C. and Alberta, typically seen as the leaders of the forestry sector in Canada, have been struggling in the sector in recent years, from the devastation of the mountain pine beetle to major forest fires. Dunn notes major companies in those provinces have begun looking to Ontario and making acquisitions, which he calls a positive signal for the industry.

Feeding into this increased speculation from other provinces, Dunn said there are plenty of opportunities available in forestry in Ontario, from wood construction and mass timber to things like recycling, packaging, biofuel and low-cost, low-carbon electrical generation. A major benefit of bringing wood-burning genergy generators removes the risks of gas spills, which can be particularly devastating to local plants and animals, and can pollute water sources.

“This is also a climate solution,” Dunn said.

“Working forests are a climate solution. As trees grow, they store carbon. Under natural conditions, particularly in the boreal forest, trees live 100 – 120 years, insect outbreaks, they decay, they burn, release that carbon back into the atmosphere. What forest management can do is intervene. We attack forest fires around important assets like communities. We can emulate the positive impacts of natural disturbance or fire through harvesting, take that material and use that material for energy.”

Dunn shared a few additional materials and products coming from the forest sector in the future, including a transparent wood material intended to replace glass.

“It’s being developed by the U.S. Forest Service,” he said.

“There’s all kinds of benefits associated with this. First of all we have the positive environmental story. Glass production has a large carbon footprint, so there are much lower carbon emissions when you create glass out of wood fibre. Also better thermal insulation properties than glass, and when it breaks it actually splinters like wood instead of shattering.”

Other examples Dunn mentioned were wooden cell phones towers, like ones currently being installed in Finland, timed right as 5G towers are scheduled to be installed across Europe, as well as plans for a wooden satellite to be launched into orbit this year. Being developed by Kyoto University and Sumitomo Forestry Co. of Japan, the satellite isn’t built entirely out of wood but is meant to be cheaper to construct than similar satellites using aluminum, and will more completely burn up upon re-entry at the end of its lifespan. This could lead to less debris both in space and back on Earth.

“I never thought I’d be talking about space debris as a forester, but when this satellite re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, it will burn up much more completely than a traditional satellite,” Dunn said.

“And because electromagnetic waves can penetrate wood, you can put the antenna on the inside rather than the outside. [The satellite] is only a couple of centimetres wide, but this company in Japan plans on doing all kinds of new space equipment out of wood, which is really neat.”

Of course, none of this is to say the traditional uses for lumber have become any less popular. Dunn said that products like lumber, OSB and plywood have experienced “a huge increase” in demand over the past few years, which Dunn said will be the “bread and butter” for the sector for the foreseeable future.