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Not Just Paper… A Look at Alternative Uses for Wood Fiber


There's a common misconception that wood fiber is solely used to create paper and paper products. But this versatile material has plenty of other uses and can turn up in the most unlikely of places—pharmaceuticals, cellophane, sponges, even sausage casings. With many traditional products being scrutinized for their environmental impact, manufacturers and retailers are increasingly turning towards wood-based materials to provide a more sustainable alternative. Here are just five.

Ioncell fibers. Photo by Mikko Raskinen, Aalto University.

You Shall Go to the Ball
An evening gown entirely made from birch trees has been created by a team of researchers, experts, and students at Aalto University in Finland. The sustainable white fabric used to make the gown was produced using a process called 'Ioncell', which creates textile fiber from a range of raw materials, including wood, recycled paper, and cardboard.

"Fabric made from Ioncell is soft to touch," explains Pirjo Kääriäinen, Professor of Practice at Aalto University. "It has a lovely sheen and falls beautifully. Most importantly, it's an environmentally sustainable option."

The gown received the seal of approval from Jenni Haukio, the wife of Finnish President Sauli Niinistö. Ms. Haukio recently wore the white dress to mark Finland's 101 years of independence at Helsinki's Presidential Palace.

Sneaker Peak
Based in San Francisco, the international shoe company Allbirds has added wood fiber to the range of materials it uses to produce its hugely popular sneakers. Titled The Tree Collection, the shoes are made using TENCEL Lyocell, a fiber made from the cellulose found in wood pulp from responsibly grown and sustainably harvested eucalyptus trees.

"Our tree fiber is sourced from South African farms that minimize fertilizer and rely on rainfall, not irrigation," the company says. "Compared to traditional materials like cotton, it uses 95 percent less water and cuts our carbon footprint in half."

Silver Linings
The issue of bioplastics has had a lot of focus recently, particularly in the area of recycling food and beverage packaging, but Finnish paper company UPM has developed a renewable wood-based bioplastic that can be used in paperboard cartons, making them much more environmentally friendly. This year, dairy company Arla will be the first business to use these new cartons for their range of milk, yogurt and cooking products.

"When we have a liquid product such as milk, a thin plastic film is needed inside the carton for reasons of product safety and shelf life," explains Sanna Heikfolk, Arla's brand and category manager. "In our new packaging, the source of plastic is now even more responsible because it is made of wood-based raw material."

Over 40 million Arla cartons will use this new sustainable bioplastic, which makes the new cartons 100 percent wood-based, compared to the 85 percent of a traditional carton.

Cut Your Cloth
The area of wood-based textiles is rapidly gaining attention across Europe, with new fibers being developed at a number of paper and pulp companies and top fashion and retail brands getting involved. The latest partnership is TreeToTextile, a joint venture between H&M, IKEA, and Stora Enso that aims to develop new sustainable textile fibers from wood pulp.

The TreeToTextile process takes raw forest material and regenerates the cellulose gained from it into a textile. The production process uses less energy, chemicals and water than conventional textile processes. As a comparison, it takes almost 12,000 liters of water to produce 1kg of cotton, but for the same amount of water you can make 26kg of wood-based textile.

"Together with existing consumer and textile knowledge," says Lena Julle, category area manager, textiles at IKEA, "this brings us one step closer to our goal of introducing a new sustainable low-cost fiber for the people."

The Sound of Silence
Finnish acoustics company Lumir uses cellulose fiber produced from wood to create soundproofing materials that are more efficient, use less chemicals, and are more sustainable than traditional products. While conventional sound-absorbing materials are often made from fiberglass and use a host of chemicals in their binding agents, materials made from wood products use less chemicals and no fiberglass, making them better for the environment, the buildings and their occupants.

"If you look at the ceilings in any public space, you'll see these old sound absorbers that often look quite ugly," says Tuomas Hänninen, Lumir's R&D director. "We're now replacing those with a seamless product that's healthier for people, absorbs sound more efficiently and looks a lot better too."

Over 3,000 square meters of wood-based soundproofing has already been installed in Finland's Parliament House, as well as a section of the Helsinki Metro, the city's new library, and a Lapland planetarium.

Sam Upton writes for Two Sides in the United Kingdom at Two Sides is a global consortium that promotes the sustainability of the graphic communications supply chain and dispels common environmental misconceptions by providing users with verifiable information on why print and paper is an attractive, practical and sustainable communications medium. This article is used with permission. Visit Two Sides North America at


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