What is the bioeconomy?
In the bioeconomy, renewable and sustainably sourced biomass resources such as trees, agricultural crops and organic residuals from harvesting and timber processing are used to provide a greater range of consumer and industrial products to society. Potential products range from food additives and textiles to construction materials, auto parts, bioplastics, biochemicals and fuel for vehicles and planes.
The growing forest bioeconomy is offering new economic opportunities for Canadians and helping advance Canada’s sustainable development goals (particularly Goal 7, Affordable and Clean Energy, and Goal 15, Life on Land — see the Sustainability Indicators section for more details about the Sustainable Development Goals). In addition to growing revenues, the forest bioeconomy can generate relatively more new jobs than other knowledge-driven, technology-based sectors such as finance or aerospace.
Among the leaders in the bioeconomy are entrepreneurial pioneers who have set out to find local solutions to global problems. Here are three examples of Canadian entrepreneurs who are developing innovative bio-based solutions.
Mass timber construction: The sky is the limit
“Wood is the material that I love the most,” says Vancouver-based architect Michael Green in his 2013 TED Talk, Why We Should Build Wooden Skyscrapers.
Green has long advocated for greater use of wood in large building construction, also referred to as mass timber construction. “I choose to build in wood as it is the most environmentally sound and carbon-neutral way to build large structures and buildings,” says Green.
Wood has an “amazing capacity to store carbon” and if you use the wood for something like a building, you are storing the carbon for as long as the building exists, Green says, adding that the use of sustainable forest practices is a given.
Green designed the Wood Innovation and Design Centre (WIDC), in Prince George, British Columbia, which, at six storeys, was the tallest contemporary wood building in North America when it opened in 2014. As a result of Green’s innovative work, mass timber construction reached new heights with the design and construction of the 18-storey Brock Commons Tallwood House at the University of British Columbia — the tallest wood building in the world when it was constructed in 2017. Green’s current projects, in cities including New York, Chicago and Paris, involve buildings of 12, 18 and even 34 storeys, built mostly with wood, of course.
Mass timber construction relies on engineered wood products that usually involve lamination and compression of multiple layers of smaller pieces of wood to create large panels. The process creates a very strong panel that meets the safety and strength requirements needed to build tall structures.
Bioplastic: Replacing traditional plastic
The environmental impacts of plastic microbeads – for instance, in cosmetics and skin-care products – are a source of growing concern among scientists and consumers. Montreal-based Anomera Inc. has come up with a sustainable alternative.
Founded by Mark Andrews, Tim Morse, Monika Rak and Nathan Hordy, all from the McGill University chemistry department, the company has found a way to convert cellulose from wood waste and paper industry pulp into biodegradable, environmentally friendly, high-performance ingredients that can outperform microplastics, thus opening up access to the multi-billion dollar cosmetics and skin-care industries.
“We have been able to use Canadian forest industry cellulose to make game-changing cosmetic ingredients that can outperform microplastics,” says Andrews, a chemistry professor and the company’s chief technology officer. “We really have a natural alternative to mineral, ceramic and artificial ingredients.”
Private investors are recognizing the company’s entrepreneurial vision and potential, as demonstrated by the US$3 million in seed funding that it raised in recent months. Anomera will use the funds to recruit additional talent and to accelerate product development, manufacturing scale-up and commercial distribution of its ingredients worldwide.
The urban forest: Keeping it local
When you think of forestry and forest products, Canada’s largest city, Toronto, probably doesn’t come to mind. However, with some 10.2 million trees providing a leafy canopy for almost 30% of the city, Toronto’s urban forests are vital to more than 5,000 small businesses, employing 25,000 people, that specialize in urban wood-related products and services.
In 2015, the City of Toronto received the Ontario Wood Award for its initiatives to support entrepreneurial businesses that promote urban forestry services and locally produced wood products. Key among those initiatives is the Urban Wood Directory, a resource aimed at connecting Toronto residents and businesses with a wide range of local urban forest management services and wood producers, from arborists to furniture designers.
The directory features innovative businesses like Canadian Salvaged Timber, which uses reclaimed local wood – whether from trees or salvaged from older buildings – to produce timbers, milled lumber, slabs, flooring, furniture and cabinetry. The company, founded by Lambos Tsaousidis more than 20 years ago, has a clientele ranging from architects and designers to restaurant and home owners.
“The vast majority of our lumber supply is reclaimed,” Tsaousidis says. “We aim to keep our environmental footprint low by sourcing reclaimed wood from the City of Toronto and surrounding areas in Southern Ontario. We strive to source as close to home as possible.”
Translating technical solutions into socio-economic benefits
Canadian entrepreneurs and their innovative ideas are powering Canada’s growing forest bioeconomy. The designs, processes and products developed by these innovators are creating good jobs, in both urban and rural Canadian communities, which in turn support economic diversification. A win-win for everyone.
Carlson, R. Nature Biotechnology 34, 247-255 (2016).
- Tall wood building construction photo courtesy of Stephane Groleau.
- Workers processing live edge slab photo courtesy of Canadian Salvaged Timber.
- False colour microbeads photo by T. Morse, courtesy of Anomera Inc.