Well managed, our forests are a great source of wealth, as they always have been. And from now on they will be more so, because new technologies are opening up a new horizon of possibilities to enhance forest resources and achieve high value-added products that coexist with traditional uses. With this, forests can become true economic and environmental lungs, giving life to local communities and helping to establish population.
Along with the use of wood for construction and furniture, stationery and cardboard, mushroom picking, ecotourism... innovative initiatives appear. For example, translucent wood has already been achieved that could be a candidate to replace glass and plastic or wood that is strong enough to build multi-storey buildings.
Fabrics such as lyocell, similar to viscose, are made from eucalyptus and birch fibers, for which large fashion giants such as Inditex and H
The future potential of our forests seems infinite. "It is estimated that the potential of the forest resource in Spain would double and even triple the economy and employment that our forests now generate," says Jesús Martínez, a forestry engineer at the FMC forestry engineering consultancy. It must be taken into account that forest spaces occupy more than half of the surface of our country. Specifically, 55%, according to the National Forest Inventory. And the wooded area is almost a third of our territory (29%).
A good starting point to generate new business opportunities in what is called the forest bioeconomy, which "tries to value and give visibility to the resources provided by forests to change to a more sustainable economic model", explains Carmen Avilés , professor of Business Organization at the Polytechnic University of Madrid. This entity participates together with different administrations and institutions in the Urban Forest Economy Laboratory (Urban Forest Innovation Lab). The project is a clear example of this new way of understanding the use of our forest resources, since it aims to build a local economic fabric around the forests of Cuenca, one of the European cities with the largest forest area: 55,000 hectares full of trees. “Through what these forests produce, entrepreneurial initiatives are promoted that sometimes need additional research and prototyping. This is done in the laboratory of the Polytechnic University of Madrid and also at the University of Castilla-La Mancha”, says the professor.
Thus, little by little, together with the great traditional Spanish wood industry, it seems that a new fabric of innovative companies is emerging around the forest masses, in which technology and research centers also collaborate. “Now it is about generating income and new uses and services that allow forests to be maintained in a sustainable way. This new line of uses of forest resources is fantastic because it will allow us to provide high value products and take care of the forests”, considers Francisco Dans, director of the Galician Forestry Association. It is one of the organizations that brings together the Confederation of Associations of Foresters of Spain (COSE). “We are two million forest owners. Just over 60% of the forest territory is private », he adds.
The biomass of the forest itself (branches, pruning remains, thin trees), of the pellets (agglomerating sawdust remains) and of the residues of the wood transformation processes offers new energy uses, in addition to generating heat and electricity in central of biomass. “For example, through pyrolysis, biomass is transformed into biochar, a biochar with many applications. It is used to decontaminate rivers or the outlet of a factory's sewage treatment plant," says Juan Pedro Majada, director of the Asturias Wood Forest Technology Center. It is also used as a kind of natural fertilizer to restore degraded soils due to lack of nutrients.
Where great development is being achieved is in extracting chemical components from forest resources that are later used in other industrial processes. “In biorefineries, before making cellulose pulp or making pellets, products are obtained that have added value in other industries such as cosmetics, food...”, indicates Majada. "There is a very powerful development of the chemical industry based on wood fibers to replace plastic and petroleum derivatives," says Dans.
Among these substances is the resin that, among its many uses, is applied in natural solvents, lacquers, glues, adhesives, glues, dyes, varnishes, even in chewing gum. Also lignin, which gives firmness to trees. It is “one of the most abundant natural polymers on Earth. It is used in fabrics, to mix with plastics and obtain more solid products, in floors, furniture... », adds Martínez.
Transparent nanocellulose is called to cause a great revolution in the industry. It is extracted from the cellulose of wood. It is light, with a high level of resistance and biodegradable. “The number of applications that are being investigated with this material is enormous. For the flexible screens of telephones and televisions, for furniture, for the bodywork of vehicles... A plastic has even been developed with this material that is indistinguishable from fossil plastic”, says Majada. It is even used in gauze, bandages and heart valves.
The 'boom' is also in the carbon market. The wood of the trees fixes C02. That's why companies large and small buy emission rights from forest owners, a way to offset their carbon footprint when they can no longer reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. There are also "investment companies and large companies that have created engineering in search of land to grow forests," says Majada, such as abandoned farms, old agricultural land, burned areas...
Forests are an opportunity that should not be missed, because if these ecosystems are not managed, nor is the necessary work carried out so that they are healthy (what is known as forestry), they disappear. "The abandonment in areas with a great capacity to accumulate biomass in the mountains triggers the risk of fire," says Dans. But climate change is also having an impact. "The increase in temperatures and the change in the distribution of the rainfall regime weakens the trees." Hence the need for proper forestry practices, from felling unhealthy trees to repopulating with genetically improved species that resist disease and adapt to current and future climates.