The Bio-Economy. This term has been an especially topical catchphrase for the past decade, as consumers, governments, and researchers look toward and plan for a future with a lower, fossil-free petro-chemical footprint. Ontario has been working hard to be on the forefront of this opportunity, not only because of the obvious potential market benefits, but also because there is no alternative.  In the mid-2000s the forest industry in Canada was hit with the perfect storm of a rising dollar and a U.S. housing crash that caused a 50 percent reduction in the Ontario forest industry. Throw in a systemic and irreversible decline in newsprint usage and it is easy to see that the forest industry must change or be left behind.  The good news is that change is coming.

Forestry has traditionally been viewed as a sunset industry, as newspapers have become passé and the lumberjack a relic of a bygone era. Today Canadian forests lead the world in third-party certification for sustainability and bio-diversity. Our forests and the benefits they can provide to our society are poised for the dawn of a new day. As the sun rises in the low-carbon economic reality of today, Ontario is in the perfect position to be a world-class leader.

Sunrise strategy

The Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) released a BioPathways report in 2011 and it is interesting to reflect on how far we’ve come, and the opportunity ahead.  As part of the sunrise industry strategy, transformational technologies have been identified in four broad categories: bio-chemical, bio-material, bio-energy, and wood product innovations.  Successes to date include North America’s first pilot-scale lignin extraction facility, the continent’s largest 100 percent biomass generating station, and scale production of the first wood oil facility — exporting bio-oil made from sawmill residuals into the U.S. for direct replacement in home and municipal oil burning heat.

Let’s look at some growth areas.  Bio-materials, especially bioplastics, are estimated to be a $10-billion-plus market in North America alone.  Ontario’s automotive sector is a key downstream market for biocomposite materials blending wood fibre into plastic car components as well as a potential for bio-based carbon fibre production. More than 2,000 plastics manufacturers and 46,000 people working in the plastics industry, and well-established distribution and transportation networks into key markets in the U.S., Ontario’s highly skilled workforce is a key advantage.

A pulp mill is essentially a bio-refinery where biomass is converted into the basic building blocks of natural materials. Bio-chemicals are produced in this process and FPInnovations and other researchers are continuing to make tremendous gains in creating petro-chemical replacing green alternatives. 

Transforming the modern economy

Wood products are also transforming Ontario and play a significant role in the modern economy. Not only is the wood products industry a significant employer and supporter of rural economies, the benefits associated with wood products as a low-carbon alternative to concrete and steel construction are considerable. New building techniques have allowed for mid-rise construction using engineered wood products such as cross-laminated timber to significantly lower both the cost of current construction as well as the carbon footprint.

As we look into the future, there remain considerable headwinds. It takes time to generate market push for new products that displace non-renewable materials. However, the direction is clear: renewable, sustainable biomass in the forest and agriculture sectors will continue to provide literal home-grown solutions for our future.