Two major societal issues—wildfire and petroleum-based plastics—are currently affecting life on our planet and significantly adding to greenhouse gas emissions. The USDA Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) is invested in one solution for both by developing recyclable, next-generation packaging materials from wood.
Wildfire has caused catastrophic damages to the American West because of hazardous fuel loads and a century of fire suppression. Nearly 73 million acres of public forest are at risk for disastrous wildfires and millions more acres of private forests share the same danger. Without economic markets to galvanize improved forest management and the use of low-grade timber, this material remains on the land like matchsticks ready to ignite.
Plastics production contributes approximately 4% to global greenhouse gas emissions. An estimated 8,300 million metric tons of virgin plastics has been produced as of 2017. It is estimated that only 9% of plastic waste gets recycled; 12% is incinerated; and a whopping 79% of that 8,300 million metric tons has accumulated in landfills and the environment. And since the pandemic began in 2020, global usage of single-use plastic (think straws, masks, carry-out food shells, and convenience food containers) has tripled.
The Forest Service has been developing sustainable packaging solutions from wood for over 100 years, starting with wooden crates from WWI munitions. This year, with partners at University of Wisconsin-Madison and Michigan State University, FPL researchers will holistically use the low-grade timber from western forests to create prototype packaging products that could one day become an equivalent alternative to current plastic packaging.
Compared with only 9% of plastic products recycled worldwide, 68% of paper products are recycled. An increase in bio-based packaging products would make a significant and positive impact on an environment already straining under the load of petroleum-based plastics.
FPL’s sustainable packaging prototype products include barrier films (think the internal coating of potato chip bags or the film you peel back from single-use containers—it’s what keeps items fresh), thermoformed trays and cups (the kind in cookie boxes to neatly hold each individual treat), and pulp-molded containers (such as sturdy papery trays from the drive-thru window that hold drinks).
This revolutionary packaging would be made from wood pulp from small-diameter logs, treetops and branches that are often left after hazardous fuel reduction treatments. This biomass is usually burned or left to decompose. However, small-scale mills could be constructed and operated to reuse these materials to create sustainable packaging.
Without economic markets to galvanize improved forest management and the use of low-grade timber, this material remains on the land like matchsticks ready to ignite. Increasing the monetary value of forest wood waste would offset the cost of forest management and enable the Forest Service to accelerate fuels reduction on at-risk forests.
Sustainable packaging has emerged as one of the most promising uses for wood-based nanomaterials—especially since they have good grease and oxygen barrier properties that makes them an ideal food packaging alternative to single-use petroleum-based plastics.