Changing the World—An FPL Wood-Based Biorefinery Products to Sustainable Packaging Initiative

In the American west, fuel buildups have reached crisis proportions, creating greater wildfire risk year after year. Plastics production contributes approximately 4% to global greenhouse gas emissions. FPL’s Wood-Based Biorefinery Products to Sustainable Packaging Initiative is invested in one solution for both issues. (Left Photo: USDA Forest Service, Right Photo: licensed from Adobe Stock)

Two major societal issues—wildfire and petroleum-based plastics—are currently affecting life on our planet and significantly adding to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) is invested in one solution for both by launching a Wood-Based Biorefinery Products to Sustainable Packaging Initiative that would produce biodegradable, recyclable, next-generation packaging materials from wood-based biomaterials and cellulose nanomaterials.

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 contribute approximately 4% to global greenhouse gas emissions. An estimated 8300 million metric tons of virgin plastics had 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 8300 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. As these plastics degrade in our environment, micro-plastics have emerged in our food and water supply.    

Packaging research at FPL was spurred by heavy demand for shipping materials during WWI and II. This 1940’s drum test machine was developed to simulate rough handling in shipping and evaluate the quality of various shipping materials. USDA Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory.

FPL has been developing sustainable packaging solutions from wood for over 100 years, starting with wooden crates from WWI munitions. More recently, the lab has developed recycling standards, nanocellulose enhanced films and better ways to fold corrugated containers. 

The next phase of FPL’s sustainable packaging initiative kicked-off this year and involves more than a dozen FPL researchers and several university collaborators. With partners at University of Wisconsin-Madison and Michigan State University, FPL researchers will wholistically use the low-grade timber stores in western coniferous trees, or western coniferous restoration wood (WCRW), to prototype packaging products that could one day become an equivalent alternative to current plastic packaging and products.

Compared with only 9% of plastic products recycled worldwide, 68% of paper products are recycled. An increase in biobased packaging products would make a significant and positive impact on an environment already straining under the load of petroleum-based plastics.

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) are the focus of FPL’s sustainable packaging prototype products.

The goal is to be able to use the underutilized, dangerously fuel-loaded materials in our nation’s forests to make high-value, high-demand packaging. And with the momentum from increased economic demand, a more cost-effective avenue to forest management and western fuel density reduction could be achieved.

A biorefinery-to-product chart that shows how the FPL Wood-Based Biorefinery Products to Sustainable Packaging Initiative will use 100% of the low-grade wood harvested from fuel-loadd western forests to produce high-value, biodegradable, recyclable packaging products.

“Increasing the monetary value of forest biomaterials would offset the cost of forest management and enable the Forest Service to accelerate fuels reduction on at-risk forests. Forest restoration projects in the western United States, including thinning for hazardous fuel reduction, leave behind a significant amount of wood waste, including small-diameter logs, treetops, and branches; restoration wood (RW). This biomass is usually burned or left to decompose. However, small-scale mills could be constructed and operated following lignocellulose-based biorefinery principles for complete utilization of RW which in the West includes mostly softwood species such as Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine, and hemlock,” explained FPL’s biorefinery researchers.

It’s possible to make biobased plastics look and feel like petroleum based single-use plastics. A thermoformed cup produced in a 2020 study from polylactic acid-cellulose nanocrystal material at Michigan State University in collaboration with FPL.

And FPL’s Biorefinery group directs substantial research efforts to realizing these goals.

It’s important to note, that even prior to the launch of FPL’s Sustainable Packing Initiative, the lab has been dedicated to the extensive research and exploration of cellulose nanomaterials because of their unique, interesting behavior and their extraordinary applications beyond packaging materials. However, sustainable packaging materials have emerged as one of the most promising uses for these wood-based nanomaterials—especially since they have good grease and oxygen barrier properties which makes them an ideal food packaging alternative to single-use petroleum-based plastics.

Will there be challenges to overcome regardless of FPL’s extensive research?  

Of course!

As Gregory Schueneman, FPL Wood Fiber & Composites Supervisory Materials Research Engineer, explained, “The most difficult issue is—SPACE SUITS FOR POTATO CHIPS! The current performance standards for food packaging are so high, biodegradable materials have a very difficult time getting into the application space. Who would expect a bag of potato chips to have a one-year shelf life in an unairconditioned gas station in Georgia? It’s crazy, but that is what aluminum coated PET packaging can do.”

But that’s the standard FPL is shooting for in order to change the world.


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