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Forest-based sector: flying on the wings of innovation

Photo: All rights reserved © Vladimir Melnikov -

While the EU is a global leader in many of the forest-based industries, innovative solutions are needed to maintain a high level of performance.. The European Commission is supporting the sector in its efforts to further develop its sustainability and competitiveness. Bio-refineries are an area of particular interest, as they can help to find new products that can also deliver on environmental objectives. Significant research activities have been launched in this field.

Forest-based industries - including the wood, paper and printing sectors - are major contributors to the EU economy, with a total production value of €365 billion, an added value of around € 120 billion and the source of 3 million jobs in 344 000 businesses. What is more, many of these jobs are in rural areas where other employment is limited.

The myth of forests and the football pitches

With its reliance on nature to provide the raw materials for its production, sustainability is a key consideration for the sector. Some 93% of our paper comes from within the EU, where the area of forest has grown by 30% since 1950 and is increasing at a rate of 1.5 million football pitches every year.

Wood residues and thinnings, which are necessary to keep Europe's forests in a healthy condition, provide a large part of the wood sector's needs. Recovered paper is also increasingly playing a leading role. Thus, since 1998, the paper industry has increased the annual paper recycling by 45%. Meanwhile, half of the primary energy used by these forest-based industries is produced from biomass, renewable energy sources that use the residues from production.

The future in 19 points

The European Commission released a 19-point action plan in 2008 to respond to the challenges facing the sector and enable it to capitalise on the opportunities.

The EU action plan emphasises that forest-based industries have a strategic role in climate change mitigation efforts that should be strengthened. It also underlines how increased investments in research and the innovative use of technical and commercial know-how are needed to improve the competitiveness of these industries.

The plan focuses on a number of areas:

  • access to raw materials
  • climate change policy and environmental legislation
  • innovation, research and technological innovation
  • trade and co-operation with third countries
  • communication and information

An advisory committee brings together representatives from all different players in the sector to follow developments and implement actions. Meanwhile, the EU-backed forest-based sector technology platform coordinates the research efforts of industry, the European Commission and Member States.

The future competitiveness and sustainability of EU forest-based industries is linked to knowledge and innovation capabilities. In this framework, bio-refineries and recovered paper are two areas where the EU has a leading role and a good potential.

Bio-refineries: wood, fuel and much more

The action plan actually indicates that the development of wood-based bio-refineries can play an important role for the future of the sector, helping to find new markets and products that can also deliver on sustainability aims. Bio-refineries are able to generate renewable raw materials and energy that can replace fossil fuels - thereby contributing to climate change mitigation efforts.

Bio-refineries can produce a large range of products, including paper, wood, adhesives, fuels, inks, vanillin for crème brulée, specialty cellulose for fabric and fashion applications.

However, multidisciplinary research is needed to achieve the full potential of biomass and to develop second generation biofuels in which feedstock does not compete with food production. The European Commission is supporting the development of bio-refinery technologies and markets through its action plan and through its research and development programmes, particularly the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

The idea is not only to have bio-refineries in the EU, but also to become global leaders in the field and have EU bio-refinery technology used globally.

Investing in research and development

There are four related FP-7 projects which started a major collaborative effort in early 2010. The Star-COLIBRI, SUPRABIO, BIOCORE and EuroBioref projects are working to develop new ways to convert biological feedstock into energy and valuable material both effectively and sustainably.

The European Commission is funding the programme with €52 million for four years. Some 81 partners from universities, research institutes and industry in 20 countries will invest an additional €28 million. The research should enable the EU to meet its ambitious goals, including that by 2020 transport in every Member State will use a minimum of 10% renewable energy - including from biofuels.

Bio-refinery is also an important feature of the Bio-energy European Industrial Initiative, one of the six industrial initiatives of the European Strategic Energy Technology (SET) Plan. The objective is to overcome the technical and economic barriers to the further development and accelerated commercial deployment of selected state-of-the-art technologies.

Urban forests for recycling champions

Increasing the recycling levels of paper is another area where the EU shows global leadership. For this, the sector turns to the so-called 'urban forests', the discarded paper from towns and villages that is used, more and more, to produce new EU paper products.

The main stakeholders of the paper value chain (paper manufacturing, converting and recycling industries, publishers, printers and makers of inks and glues) adopted a voluntary agreement in 2006 - the European Declaration on Paper Recovery - to improve environmental performance and increase the recycling rate to 66% by 2010.

The industry managed to already reach this target in 2009, achieving a rate of over 72% and recycled more that 58 million tonnes of paper in total - the highest rate worldwide. The efforts show what a concerted programme of investments in capacity, research and public awareness can do.

If you print this article, do not forget to recycle it!


'Textiles, Fashion and Forest-based Industries' Unit,
Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry DG Enterprises' Forest-based industries: wood, paper and printing pages

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