British Columbia and First Nations scientists create decaying ‘biofoam’ packaging from wood

Styrofoam can take 500 years to decompose as it swells in landfills around the world, but a new packaging material called biofoam made from forest waste can decompose in weeks, scientists say.

According to Feng Jiang, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, this is a potential environmental boon, as polystyrene foam currently fills up to 30% of landfills.

“So we did some tests, which is putting biomoss in the ground, and then it started degrading…and after two months it will be completely gone,” said Jiang, an assistant professor at the faculty. of forestry from the university. Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Functional Biomaterials.

The biofoam project is a collaboration between the Wet’suwet’en First Nation of central British Columbia and researchers from the University of British Columbia.

The partnership was born about three years ago when Jiang met Reg Ogen, President and CEO of the First Nation’s Yinka Dene Economic Development Limited Partnership, at a meeting hosted by the Columbia Ministry of Forests. British.

Jiang and his fellow scientists listened to First Nations people describe their concerns about what to do with the wood waste on their land.

Ogen said wildfires and mountain pine beetle infestations in the 1990s and 2000s created large amounts of trash that they wanted to use in a meaningful way.

“We met Dr. Jiang there and looked at different ways to use wood scraps and finally found a product that I think we can do something good with. And hopefully, ultimately to keep all the Styrofoam out of landfills and then make sure we continue to protect Mother Earth,” Ogen said.

He said seeing trash turned into useful material made him smile.

Ogen hopes the biofoam will create First Nations jobs that were lost when the mountain pine beetle epidemic swept through their lumber industry.

“One of our main goals is to ensure that our next generations are taken care of and have good job opportunities,” he said.

“With this opportunity, we don’t necessarily have to look (only) at our backyard. There are other parts of Western Canada that we could consider, even in the United States or overseas… I think there is a great opportunity to make this a global success.

The texture of Biofoam is close to polystyrene foam and can be shaped in the same way into different shapes. Its natural origins make the biofoam slightly darker.

Although the specific ingredients are kept secret, it is made by grinding the wood into fiber to create a slurry, then adding non-toxic chemicals and finally putting the mixture in an oven at 80°C.

Jiang said the process is similar to cooking.

“After a few hours, we pull it out, like a big cake,” Jiang said.

Investors and manufacturers are now being sought to launch a pilot plant to produce biofoam in British Columbia next year.

A secondary benefit of the project could be the mitigation of forest fires fueled by wood waste, Jiang said.

Intellectual property for the project is shared by Jiang’s team and the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, UBC said in a statement.

Jiang said environmental sustainability is his passion, and while it’s not realistic to replace all plastics with natural fibers, he wants to emphasize what he calls the three Rs: reuse, recycle and replace plastics.

“Every time I see a product on the market, I always think: can we replace it with natural fiber? I also keep asking the same question to my students. Throughout my career, I want to use my knowledge and expertise to create something that benefits society and the planet,” Jiang said.

—Nono Shen, The Canadian Press