Extracting the Full Value from Ontario’s Forests

Hand holding lignin

Lignin is just one, made-in-Ontario, forest technology that advances industry, strengthens the economy, and aligns with net-zero carbon goals. We need to act now to realize its potential.

It’s just a boring brown powder.

But when it comes to Ontario’s economy, lignin — a wood-based chemical — is anything but boring. Lignin is one of the most under-utilized, renewable, and flexible forest bioproducts available. It has the potential to displace or replace petroleum-based chemicals and materials in a wide range of products, from asphalt, glue for plywood, automotive parts, tires, lithium-ion batteries, plastics, and more.

What’s more, because lignin is a byproduct of more traditional forest products, like timber and pulp and paper, we can realize its many benefits without cutting down additional trees.

Those are huge environmental wins, of course. But lignin also represents a massive economic opportunity for Ontario. Both within the province and globally, demand for low-carbon and sustainable alternatives like lignin is growing as Ontario’s heavy and manufacturing industries look for cost-effective ways to decrease its their reliance on fossil fuels. A spate of recent pulp mill closures has constrained global lignin supply, further driving demand.

“Ontario has all the ingredients necessary to be a world leader in bio-based products,” says Alexander Koukoulas, a director at AFRY Management Consulting and one of the co-authors of a recent, exhaustive research report on the production of high-performance lignin products in Ontario. He points to the province’s “vast, bio-based forest resources,” its ideal geographic location, and the synergies between northern Ontario’s forest industry and southern Ontario’s heavy and manufacturing industries, as well as growing international demand. The technology to extract and repurpose lignin exists — in fact, one such technology was developed in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

But harnessing lignin’s potential requires a shift in mindset, policy, and priorities, says Koukoulas. For example, he points out, Ontario could easily double its annual harvest of trees and still maintain a healthy, sustainable forest system. “Resilient, healthy forests require active management and should be utilized in producing new and existing wood-based product. Otherwise, they begin to die off, and we see the resulting catastrophic events, like massive forest fires.”

There’s enormous — and untapped — economic, industrial, and environmental potential in Ontario’s forests. And we need to act now to realize it.

Government investment is similarly key. For example, a one-time investment of $60 million in a single mill could yield annual revenues of $100 million. “Many of the products derived from lignin and other bio-based technologies are early-stage, which means that the early adopters who get out in front of this megatrend stand to be enormously successful in bringing a whole range of bio-based product to the market,” says Koukoulas. “Anywhere we can substitute bio-based for fossil fuels should be really exciting.”

Further, government investment in lignin and other forest biotechnologies is increasingly crucial during a time when forest fires, world events, and economic uncertainty threaten Ontario’s forest industry ecosystem. “When a pulp mill closes, for example,” explains Koukoulas, “we tend to lose all the related forest-product companies in that ecosystem, and that compromises the whole.” Bio-based forest technologies play a crucial role in maintaining the sector and enhancing its capacity, profitability, and sustainability.

CRIBE continues to play a key role in supporting research, development, and synergies in Ontario’s bioeconomy.

“If we put in the effort to extract the full value of each tree, we have an opportunity to realize a made-in-Ontario economic opportunity that advances industry, contributes to the economy, and champions net-zero carbon goals,” says CRIBE CEO Chris Walton. “Investing in lignin and similar technologies is an opportunity to create value for existing industry, protect current jobs and add new ones, and positions Ontario as a Canadian and global leader in the technologies and synergies that will drive the net-zero economy.

– By Susan Goldberg
Read our report on Lignin Opportunities in Ontario