Green Stream: New Wood-Based Plastic Could Be a Game-Changer for Circular Home Furnishings and Building Materials

Ambre O. Khiari

Unbleached wood fibers and nanofibers are environmentally-friendly alternatives for material development. They are particularly useful as reinforcements in fiber-based biocomposites due to their CO2 absorption capacity and low density.

A group of researchers from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm said they’ve found a way to deliver high-strength biocomposites with degradable fibers that are stronger than other wood-based plastics. This new material will ultimately pave the way for a future circular bioeconomy.

In the introduction to their paper, published in the scientific journal Nature Communications, researchers Erfan Oliaei, Peter Olsén, Tom Lindström and Lars A. Berglund state:

“Fossil-based plastics are often incinerated or disposed of as landfill. Plastic waste is long-lasting in nature, physically harming wildlife and providing chemical hazards to the environment. Plastic production and plastic waste incineration result in 400 Mt of CO2 emissions per year. Conventional plastics contributed 1.7 Gt CO2-eq emissions in 2015 throughout their life cycle, which will increase to 6.5 Gt CO2-eq by 2050 if the current increase in use continues.”

Finding an alternative to the massive use of plastic that is proliferating within the furniture manufacturing industry was imperative.

This is not the first time researchers have produced a wood-based alternative to plastic. In September, the University of British Columbia (UBC) announced that one of their researchers, Dr. Feng Jiang, had developed a cellulose film by breaking down wood fibers from forest waste in a cold sodium hydroxide solution (the hydroxide being later recycled) combined with gentle mechanical mixing.

The result is a translucent, strong, water-resistant film with the appearance and properties of plastic, but with the added benefit of being fully biodegradable.

It can therefore be transformed into packaging or food bags for items like potato chips or frozen fruit, as well as for bubble wrap, envelopes and other protective films. Unlike conventional formulas, it will not pollute, but biodegrade significantly faster—for example, in three weeks instead of several hundreds of  years.

Some plastics even take up to one million years to decompose.

The UBC project is not the only one developing cellulosic films from wood (Yale is also working on it), but it is the first to use a minimal amount of energy and chemicals.

On the other hand, the wood-based plastic project developed by the KTH Royal Institute of Technology is the first innovation that would replace traditional thermoplastics in the furniture industry with a material that can be broken down faster and without harm to the environment.

In fact, one of their goals is to replace fossil-based materials used in home construction and furnishing, such as closets, doors and panels.

No one has been able to make a degradable plastic with fiber content this high before, while having good dispersion and low fiber damage,” Olsén explains in the KTH Royal Institute of Technology press release. “This enabled the material properties to be improved dramatically compared to previous attempts.”

Everything is based on cheap and available raw materials,” Olsén says. “The degradation products are also harmless to the environment and can be reused—enabling a fully-circular product concept.”

However, in order to move on to commercialization, Olsén says the formula still needs to be optimized. “The key to the work is that it shows a new way of how we can create degradable biocomposites with high fiber content.”

The paper, Highly reinforced and degradable lignocellulose biocomposites by polymerization of new polyester oligomer, can be accessed here in the scientific journal, Nature Communications.

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