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Wood industry to focus on biomass beneficiation

“Many things we use are connected to wood,” so says the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA). 

Forestry SA said the forestry industry collectively contributed around R38.4 billion to the South African economy. 

Export value of South African wood stood at R8.03 billion while pulp and paper stood roughly at R20 billion. Wood was the most accessible of the forestry products for end users like upholstery and carpentry yet this economy was understated.  

But one may ask why the imperativeness to focus on the wood economy? 

According to an article piece published in the Journal of Forestry Research by Andrew McEwan, wood products from wood biomass were strongly emerging, substituting conventional wood products. 

“South America’s plantation area is expected to more than double, from 10.7 million ha at the turn of the century, to 26.7 million ha in 2050. Seventy-one per cent of the timber harvested in South America by 2050 will be produced by industrial plantations,” notes McEwan and colleagues. 

Currently, PAMSA was spearheading for the wood industry to contribute in ‘making the circular economy bigger.’ 

PAMSA said the focus was on biomass beneficiation developing bio-based carbonate derivatives from lignin “that could be used in the production of paper, glass and detergents” allowing exploration of the commercial value of forest and mill residues. 

By 2050, demand for wood is predicted to reach six billion m3, which, is motivated by the increased wood consumption in the BRICS economies notably pushed by increase in population growth. 

Executive director at PAMSA, Jane Molony said targeting of wood biomass harvesting could open the sector up and make “even more meaningful contribution to sustainable product development and setting up pulp and paper mills as biorefineries. This means we can improve our competitive advantage as a country”.

PAMSA was of the view that when wood was farmed sustainably, it could store carbon and according to its research as it was used in the built environment and houses for its cellulose, lignin and sugars. 

Cellulose from wood was discovered to be economically viable source of ethanol biofuel, used in countless products and as according to Moloney was a “safe food additive that passes through our bodies, unabsorbed”. 

PAMSA found that trees captured more carbon from the atmosphere than any other biome, and were essentially crops that could be planted and replanted in rotations. 

Yet, South Africa in any given year only harvested about 9% of the total tree count.  

“This means that there are always trees growing, at different stages of maturity, and these trees are all absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2) and storing the carbon. The fact that trees are planted, harvested and replanted on the same land makes wood and paper a renewable and efficient resource,” says Molony.

PAMSA was developing this technology by working with various universities and the Department of Science and Innovation. 

It is hoped that through the Science Innovation Fund from the department and other partners, South Africa could grow and harvest more trees, encouraging the culture of making and recycling paper products. 

Such development could open for new careers to the economy and provide sustainable jobs for thousands of people.  

“Careers in pulp and paper technology and process engineering have not traditionally been sexy, but as the sector finds ways to diversify in the face of reduced printing and writing paper demand, chemists and chemical engineers can help discover the wonder of wood, wood-derived chemicals and paper packaging,” sayss Molony.

Additional source: Andrew McEwan, Enrico Marchi, Raffaele Spinelli & Michal Brink. 2020. Past, present and future of industrial plantation forestry and implication on future timber harvesting technology, Journal of Forestry Research volume 31, pages339–351.

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