Atlantic Forestry July 2019

A spoonful of bio-products

I have a habit of picking up weird food products at the grocery store. (Cricket powder? Sure, it’s worth a try!) I chalk it up to journalistic curiosity, but maybe I’m just a gullible consumer with a taste for novelty, like a great many other people. Recently I came home with a box of “natural sweetener” called xylitol. This particular brand, Xyla, is made in the U.S., and is labelled as being “derived from 100 percent North American hardwood.”

I conducted some unscientific tests, and determined that xylitol is delicious. After all, it’s sugar. Actually, it’s a sugar alcohol – CH2OH(CHOH)3CH2OH, for all you chemists. It can be produced from various forms of lignocellulosic biomass, including corn cobs and oat hulls, as well as wood (birch, generally). Xyla crystals are slightly larger and glassier than standard white sugar, so the way they dissolve in your mouth is a bit different. But the taste is the same, as far my uneducated palate can discern.

Apparently xylitol is harmful to dogs, but it is approved for human consumption, and some diabetics find it useful as a sugar substitute. It provides about the same sweetness on a volume basis, but with less than half the calories. The only documented disadvantage is a laxative effect, which bears consideration. (I’ll keep you posted.) That, and the fact that it’s considerably more expensive than conventional sugar. Arguably, most of us would benefit from reducing our intake of sweeteners. Switching to xylitol could help to moderate our consumption, and could also make us less reliant on sugar cane grown in the Global South, or genetically-modified sugar beets grown in Alberta and the U.S.

A lot of the information about xylitol on the internet comes via flaky natural-health-products websites, which appear to be mostly in favour of this sugar substitute – though there are also some lonely voices questioning whether such a highly processed substance can really be considered a “natural” food. If you have a hankering for a wholesome and healthful forest-derived sweetener, I would suggest supporting small landowners in our region by purchasing maple sugar.

But these days there’s more buzz about deriving bio-products from low-grade fibre, which results in relatively modest economic benefits trickling down to landowners – or possibly none at all. For the big players in the industry, product diversification is viewed as a matter of survival, and bio-products are where it’s at. Last year, Vancouver-based Fortress Paper changed its name to Fortress Global Enterprises Inc., to reflect its new approach to the business, which includes a dash of xylitol.

In 2010 Fortress purchased an idled mill in Thurso, Quebec (hometown of Guy Lafleur, and now part of the National Capital Region), where former owner Fraser Papers had produced NBHK (northern bleached hardwood kraft). Converting the mill to dissolving pulp, to supply the rayon industry in Asia, has been a rocky process, but Fortress has soldiered on. (Some analysts predict the rayon market could boom if the textile industry shifts away from polyester, which is a source of micro-plastic pollution in our oceans.) And this spring the company announced that it will be receiving $10.4 million in federal funding (through Sustainable Development Technology Canada) to assist in the construction of a demonstration-scale facility to produce xylitol and other bio-products at the mill. This financial contribution is in addition to a previously announced $10 million grant from Natural Resources Canada, and a pending $7 million investment and loan from Quebec. It’s just one example of governments going gaga over bio-products.

I was thinking about this while attending Atlantic BioCon, which was held May 27-29 at St. Mary’s University (SMU) in Halifax. Since 2012, the annual conference has explored real and imagined opportunities in the “bio-economy,” casting the net wide enough to encompass agriculture and fisheries as well as forestry, and even sectors such as waste management.

In his opening remarks to delegates, Dr. Robert Summerby-Murray, the president of SMU, said his view of the world is informed by his academic background in social geography, and by the university’s orientation toward entrepreneurship. It’s clear to him that, for a couple hundred years, this region was in a “staples trap.” It’s a term used to describe what happens to a jurisdiction that continues to rely on exports of minimally processed commodities. (As Canadian economist Mel Watkins describes it, “business elites and governments become beholden to the interests of the resource industries, to the neglect of the rest of the economy.”) But Dr. Summerby-Murray said BioCon is a signal that the Atlantic provinces are no longer bogged down in that kind of economic inertia.

The roster of conference speakers certainly indicated a shift toward more sophisticated, higher-value products. Bruce Anderson, of Michelin (a company to which Nova Scotia is vastly beholden), talked about a new corporate vision that involves taking responsibility for the lifecycle of materials. He said Michelin now wants to be not just a tire company, but a “sustainable mobility company.”

Dr. Alex Ward, of Origin Materials, talked about the prospects for plant-based polymers. She said we tend to lament our moral failings as a consumer society, but our penchant for buying vast quantities of stuff actually facilitates efficient, integrated supply chains – which should allow us to ensure that plastics are not only recyclable, but actually recycled. “Mass consumption is not going away,” she said. “How do we harness that as a force for good?”

Allan Eddy, business development manager with Port Hawkesbury Paper, outlined the company’s plans to develop an “eco-industrial park” at the mill site in Point Tupper. (See “Seeking symbiotic relationships,” pg. 16.) And then there was Dr. John Kettle, director of customer solutions and international relations with Natural Resources Institute Finland (an organization encompassing the state research institutes for forestry, agri-food, and fish and game – collectively known as Luke, because “Luonnonvarakeskus” is hard to say), who talked about how the Finns have embraced a new model of diversified bio-product mills.

Dr. Kettle pointed out that Finland and Canada have just signed a renewed five-year forestry sector cooperation agreement, which includes a new section on the forest-based bio-economy. The idea is to share R&D resources, to help commercialize new processes and products, while taking steps to mitigate climate change and protect biodiversity.

Canada sent a sizeable delegation to the 2019 World Circular Economy Forum, which was held June 3-5 in Helsinki. Next year, when it is held in North America for the first time, Canada will host the event, in partnership with the Finnish Innovation Fund, Sitra. This relationship makes sense; our countries are similar in many respects, but are not really competing in the same markets.

The challenge of building a circular economy – to make the most of our resources, while reducing pollution – is not primarily technological, but organizational. What we can learn from Finland, I think, has more to do with the social and political culture – the way the public and private sectors interact, and the way regular citizens fit in.

We should, of course, continue to explore wood-derived sugars and nanocrystals and other new products that could multiply economic returns in the forest industry. The phase-out of single-use plastics in Canada also presents great opportunities to develop wood-based alternatives that could ultimately become valuable exports (as long as we do the upfront lifecycle analysis to ensure such products are truly sustainable). But this has to go hand-in-hand with development in the landowner sector.

We must aspire to duplicate the rural prosperity that is enjoyed by Finland’s 630,000 private woodlot owners. This is not something that can be cooked up in a laboratory; it doesn’t have the whiz-bang appeal of novel products. It will involve doing more silviculture oriented toward the more diverse and mature forests that are known to be both economically and ecologically resilient. (After all, the circular economy actually mimics biological systems.) And it will require finding ways of empowering landowners – so they are not mere hewers of wood, but active players in an evolving forest products industry. This warrants the same allocations of creativity and capital currently being poured into the bio-products “space,” as they call it. DL