Using the Whole Thing

At the heart of Alberta’s $5.8-billion forestry industry is a deep respect for trees, which combat climate change with their amazing ability to lock in carbon.

That respect and commitment to sustaining the forests is why the industry strives to use the whole tree — that is, every part of the tree that arrives at one of the province’s lumber mills for processing.

“Our industry has always been really committed to sustainability,” says Aspen Dudzic, director of communications for the Alberta Forest Products Association.

“Over the years, as we’ve continued to innovate, it’s opened up more opportunities to increase that and do a lot of really cool things to ensure we’re using as much of the tree as we can.”

Over the past five years, Alberta forest companies have invested over $90 million in research and development to reduce wood waste, improve sustainability practices, and develop new and innovative products and alternative energy sources. These investments protect the long-term future of the industry and the more than 30,000 jobs it supports in the province.

Dudzic says technological innovation begins before a tree is broken down. Lumber mills use sophisticated artificial intelligence technology to grade the lumber and optimize how logs are to be cut to ensure the most efficient use of the resource. Once a tree is processed, leftover materials such as small wood pieces and sawdust can be transformed into products like garden mulch and agricultural fertilizer — or into a source of renewable energy.

“One hundred per cent of bio- energy in Alberta’s forest sector comes from byproducts of manufacturing lumber and paper,” says Dudzic. “We use leftover sawdust and wood chips to heat and power our facilities.”

One hundred per cent of bioenergy in Alberta’s forest sector comes from byproducts of manufacturing lumber and paper

Water treatment technology has developed to serve the same end. At least two Alberta pulp mills use biomethanation to generate electricity. It’s a water treatment technology that uses bacteria to clean the water used in the pulping process. After digesting organics in the water, the bacteria die and produce methane. The gas is captured and used to generate power and steam. “When there’s additional power, they’ll export that to the grid,” Dudzic says.

The forestry industry is even improving how trees can be used on the microscopic level by researching uses for lignin, the strong cellular structure of wood and bark. It can be used as an alternative, renewable ingredient in products such as adhesives, plastics, flavouring and fragrances. “When I think of lignin, I just see so much untapped potential,” Dudzic says.

The drive to use the whole tree also supports the Alberta forestry industry in its efforts to be a nature-based solution for climate change. Dudzic says modern harvest and processing practices sequester carbon naturally.

“When a tree dies and decays or burns, all the carbon it was holding is released into the atmosphere,” she says. “When we harvest a tree before the end of its lifespan and turn it into a sustainably produced wood product like lumber or mass timber, the carbon remains locked into the wood for the lifetime of the product. A typical wood-framed house stores the carbon equivalent of the emissions that five cars would give off running for a year.”