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All Things Wood: USFS-Forest Products Laboratory

With a recycling rate at 95%, wood pallets and containers are an essential part of environmentally friendly initiatives to create a more sustainable supply chain. Much of the research in wood products as a renewable, sustainable resource is conducted by the forest products industry in conjunction with government entities. In this week’s post, Nature’s Packaging will explore one of those agencies with a deeper dive into the United States Forest Service-Forest Products Lab.

Origin

The Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) was created in 1909 under the direction of the 1st Chief of the Forest Service – Gifford Pinchot. He, along with McGarvey Cline and Overton Price, recognized the need for a facility to study, research, and test the physical properties of wood for commercial, industrial, and military uses.

McGarvey Cline is credited with being the driving force behind the creation of the lab and he led the initiative to align with a university. Cline realized that seeking a collaborative agreement with a university would benefit both the pathway for technical study and research of wood, and develop a steady stream of expertise for the forest products community. He also selected the first 45 scientists and personnel to staff the lab.

McGarvey Cline chose the University of Wisconsin at Madison as the official location of the first Forest Products Laboratory and was appointed its first official director. The official ceremony of dedication was conducted on June 4th, 1910 with an upgraded building and laboratory facility built in 1932.

Forest Products Lab

Vision & Mission

The current strategic plan of the Forest Products Lab was devised in 2010. It includes both the mission and vision statements of the FPL:

Mission – To identify and conduct innovative wood and fiber utilization research that contributes to conservation and productivity of the forest resource, thereby sustaining forests, the economy, and quality of life.

Vision – To be a world leader in innovative wood utilization research that significantly improves quality of life and national competitiveness while conserving wood and fiber.In reaching our vision, we will help create a future in which people throughout the world benefit from healthy forests and grasslands that provide round wood, solid sawn wood, composites, fiber, chemicals, energy, and other renewable materials in a sustainable manner.

Research Areas

The focus of the FPL is currently centered around 5 key areas of emphasis:

Advanced Composites – representing more than 40% of the total materials used in residential construction, the FPL works to create composite products from bio-based materials. Composites are especially useful because they can be created from fibers, particles, and flakes from smaller tree species and can also utilize post-industrial and post-consumer wood waste materials.

Advanced Structures – centered around creating innovative wood-based technologies for housing and buildings like engineered wood products, moisture control, performance coatings and finishes, adhesives, wood preservation and composites. Many of the materials used in modern wood frame house and building construction originate here.

Forest Bio-refinery – focused on the development of bio-based fuels and chemicals. This group of technologies utilize chemical, biochemical, and thermal methods to create fuels and chemicals from biomass. Secondarily, this area also works on how to efficiently and effectively remove the woody biomass that can choke forests and create extreme wildfire situations.

Nanotechnology – research in nanocellulose technology through the use of structural, chemical, and mechanical techniques. This section also launched the Nanocellulose Pilot Plant in 2012, which has become a premiere worldwide research facility for the science.

Woody Biomass Utilization – concentrating on the utilization of small diameter, overstocked and underutilized tree material that represent significant forest overgrowth. This area of emphasis has worked to identify other ways to use this material to create profitable by-products and businesses. Examples would include structural material for use in bridges, walkways, and buildings.   

FPL & Wood Pallets

The Pallet Foundation, in conjunction with the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association, recently released an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). This important document is made available to the public and provides transparent, factual, product specific environmental data and information which is independently verified through the UL Environment EPD program.

A key part of the EPD is the Life-Cycle Assessment which was a study conducted by the Forest Products Lab that evaluated the environmental impact of manufacturing and recycling wooden pallets. The study covered the cradle-to-grave life-cycle stages of the wooden pallet supply chain using an FPL life-cycle assessment methodology. This included:  sourcing of raw material, product manufacturing, transportation, and reuse, repair, and final disposal of pallets.

The overall conclusion is that recycling and proper end of lifecycle disposal practices with wooden pallets are carbon neutral. Because of the difficulty in tracking pallets through the supply chain, a key feature of the study was an assessment based on a single repair of a pallet. Typically, in real world situations, pallets are repaired multiple times over the life of the product. This would increase the positive environmental impact of wood pallets over their lifetime:

Wood pallets and their components are easy to repair. This study considered a single repair, which was conservative and thus probably overestimated the environmental impacts of a sectoral analysis as indicated by the repair and reuse stage [B2]. If more repairs were considered, less virgin wood material would be required in addition to extending the RSL, which would probably have a substantial positive environmental impact because of how much the wood material inputs affected the GHG profile.

The Future

Since 1910, The US Forest Service – Forest Products Lab has endeavored to provide meaningful facts, data, and science that utilizes wood as its primary resource. Going into the future, the FPL will work to address the critical challenges that affect our modern world. These challenges include:

Carbon Sequestration – forest products research to improve the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions

Sustainable Forestry – sustainable development of forests in the face of worldwide exponential population growth and deforestation

Alternative Energy Sources – ever increasing energy demands coupled with the need to develop new alternatives and create more efficient energy sources that will touch everything from transportation to housing

Urbanization – incorporating and improving forest conservation, maintenance, and growth in the face of increased urban development

Globalization – informing decisions from a local, national, global level by understanding the interconnectedness of all nations and people across the globe and how forests and trees play a key role as a resource

Technological Change – staying at the forefront of information dissemination and structuring accessibility to information utilizing modern communication technologies

Economic Forces – the status of both the US and global economy play a key role in determining how research and study is conducted and how the results are implemented to the benefit of all concerned

Political & Social Forces – All branches of the US government and the public itself will continue to have a profound impact and strong influence on the FPL as it continues to lead research and science in the areas of sustainability, renewable resources, environmental health, and industrial processes.

The Forest Products Lab will continue to uphold its mission, vision, and strategic plan into the 21st century and promote the healthy, sustainable growth of US forests. The lab will also continue to develop cutting edge technologies and science that further enhances the renewable resource of wood and traditional forest products.

Is Wood the New Styrofoam?

Is Wood the New Styrofoam?

If you’ve never heard of ‘nanowood’ it probably won’t be long before it becomes the new buzzword. Nanowood is made by removing the filler from wood, which leaves only the bare fibers themselves, creating a material which has demonstrated amazing properties of insulation and has already out-performed other current insulators.

Image supplied by Flickr; Distributed under CC-BY 2.0 License

A team of researchers at College Park in Maryland has been experimenting with a process which uses simple chemicals such as hydrogen peroxide, sodium sulphite, and sodium hydroxide to strip away the lignin and hemicellulose from wood, which leaves just the cellulose fibers remaining. These remaining fibers are arranged in parallel and give nanowood all its unusual characteristics, such as high-quality insulation and surprising strength.

Nanowood is the filler in wood that would normally allow heat to be conducted across it, but with that filler removed, there is virtually no such conduction and instead acts as a reflectant. Nanowood has also been shown to be unbelievably strong and is able to withstand up to 2,000 pounds per square inch, which puts it way ahead of glass, wood, epoxy, wool, and yes, even Styrofoam. Since it’s also very inexpensive to produce, there will undoubtedly be a whole catalog of uses for nanowood in the very near future, especially in the area of insulation.

Another wonder material made from wood 

By the year 2020, it is entirely possible that a brand new industry will have sprung up around another new wonder material made from wood, and that this new industry has a global value of $600 billion. As astonishing as that sounds, no one is questioning the numbers, because nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC) is already amazing the experts with its practical applications in flexible electronics, computer components, and even lightweight body armor that the U.S. military has commissioned.

NCC is made by processing wood pulp, much like nanowood, in that it has the lignin and hemicellulose stripped out, before concentrating it into a thick crystalline paste which can be applied to various surfaces, or processed into strands called nanofibrils. This extraordinarily strong material is eight times stronger than stainless steel, yet is extremely cheap to make, and there is a virtually unlimited supply of it.

The first U.S. factory has already opened in Madison, Wisconsin, and is operated by the U.S. Forestry Service. The U.S. Forest Service has already achieved a number of successes with its research and is responsible for many of the modern wood-based technologies currently in use, including wood based computer chips. The laboratory is sure to be involved on some level with the ongoing research into nanowood and nanocrystalline cellulose in the coming years, to find even more uses for amazing new wood-based products.

Resources

The GreenBlue Program

The GreenBlue Program

The GreenBlue Program is one which has broad support from the U.S. Forest Service, as well as public corporations such as McDonald’s, Mars, and Staples, with the stated goal of developing a new forest sustainability tool called Forests in Focus, and using it to increase sustainability and the certified supply of wood products. Forests in Focus is a digital mapping tool which will complement the initiative for certifying family-owned forests as sustainable, and as being managed with an appropriate level of respect for conservation. Nearly 40% of the commercial wood fiber produced in the U.S. comes from family-owned forests, but only about 1% of the source forests are certified for sustainability and environmental friendliness.

Image supplied by Flickr; Distributed under CC-BY 2.0 License

Problems with certification

Up to the present, certification of family-owned forests has not been so much an issue of unacceptable management processes, as it has been an issue of the certification process itself having little benefit for owners of such assets, while also being very costly to acquire. This is why the American Forest Foundation (AFF) has joined forces with the Forest Service in backing the GreenBlue Program, so as to get all the parties together, in an effort to understand the issues hindering certification.

The group has made significant progress, beginning with discussions about how to increase forest certification, and then progressing into exploring options on how to achieve greater access for monitoring, and potentially certifying, the vast lands currently belonging to the un-certified category of forest land. It has also addressed sustainability issues on the ground floor of these operations, and has hosted discussions with brand owners who cannot secure sufficient quantities of wood from certified forests.

How GreenBlue will help supply and sustainability

The partnership of big corporations, the American Forest Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), is paying dividends, as participants in the joint program have identified issues with the supply chain and have gained a better understanding of the importance of family-owned forests. When added to existing initiatives for certification, support for the GreenBlue Program should help bring in many more family-owned forest lands and increase certifications dramatically.

The new digital mapping tool, Forests in Focus, will help to identify gaps in sustainability wherever family-owned forest lands exist, so that such owners can be approached and assisted with obtaining certification. The hope is to involve a great many more family-owned enterprises in the certification process, so that supply chain shortages can be relieved, and so sustainable methods can be ensured on those lands where it might not currently exist.

In order to accomplish this, a vast amount of data must be gathered, correlated, and analyzed, so that the most informed decisions can be made about where to focus attention. Information on forest status, local trends, species, size, growth rates, mortality, and harvest rates must all be aggregated for analysis, so that visual depictions of the data can be developed, and then used to maximum effect by all of the participants in the GreenBlue program.

Resources:

 

Omnibus Funds the Fight Against Wildfires

Omnibus Funds the Fight Against Wildfires

Nature’s Packaging is committed to forest sustainability and sustainably managing forests is key to maintaining healthy forests. A fix for the method by which forest fires have been funded has finally been included in the 2018 Omnibus Spending Package, which was recently signed into law by the President. Secretary of State Sonny Perdue had lobbied for modification of the way the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has been funded for firefighting ever since he took office in April 2017, and all his hard work has finally achieved success. A solution to the funding problem has been needed for several decades, and when Secretary Purdue came into office, he made it a priority, working with congressmen from both parties to finally achieve the necessary funding structure.

What’s included in Omnibus

Image supplied by Flickr; Distributed under CC-BY 2.0 License

For the period beginning in 2020 and ending in 2027, there will be an entirely new funding structure for the way forest fires are managed. Starting in 2020, there will be $2.25 billion available to the US Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior for fighting fires. Each year after 2020, the budget allotment will increase by $100 million, peaking at $2.95 billion in the year 2027.

If all funding available in the allotment is used, it will be required of the Secretary of Agriculture to produce a congressional report documenting all the expenditures which were made for fighting fires during the fiscal year.

Improvement over the past 

This new funding package represents a significant improvement over how funding was handled in the past. Formally, a rolling 10-year average of funding was used, while the overall USFS budget stayed basically the same. However, during that period, fire seasons became longer with conditions that were worsening, so the rolling 10-year budget average kept rising.

That consumed a larger percentage of the U.S. Forest Service budget every year, which in turn mandated that the agency use funds from prevention programs in order to cover the cost of fire suppression. It was also necessary to cut a number of recreational programs, such as hunting and fishing, in order to ensure adequate funding for fire suppression.

In 2017, fire suppression costs were more than $2.5 billion, which was the highest total ever recorded, and during the height of the fire season, more than 28,000 personnel were involved with the fire suppression effort. This makes it extremely important that the Omnibus Package was approved this year, since it has been clearly demonstrated that fire seasons are becoming longer and more costly every year, at least for the present time.

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