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B.C. scientists and First Nation create decomposing ‘biofoam’ packaging from wood


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By Nono Shen in Vancouver

Styrofoam can take 500 years to decompose as it bloats landfills around the world, but new packing material called biofoam made of forestry waste can decompose in a matter of weeks, say scientists.

University of British Columbia researcher Feng Jiang says that’s a potential environmental boon, because Styrofoam currently fills up to 30 per cent of landfills.

“So, we have been doing a few tests, which is putting biofoam into the soil and then it started degrading … and after two months, it will be completely gone,” said Jiang, an assistant professor in the university’s faculty of forestry and the Canada Research Chair in sustainable functional biomaterials.

The biofoam project is a collaboration between the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in central B.C. and University of B.C. researchers.

The partnership came about three years ago when Jiang met Reg Ogen, president and CEO of the First Nation’s Yinka Dene Economic Development Limited Partnership, at an encounter arranged by the B.C. Forests Ministry.

Jiang and his fellow scientists listened as First Nation members described concerns about what to do with wood waste on their land.

Ogen said wildfires and infestations of mountain pine beetles in the 1990s and 2000s had created large amounts of waste that they wanted to be used in a meaningful way.

“We met with Dr. Jiang there and we looked at different ways of utilizing the wood waste and finally we came up with a product that I think we can do something good with. And hopefully, at the end of the day, to keep all of the Styrofoam out of the landfills and then make sure that we continue to protect Mother Earth,” said Ogen.

He said seeing waste transformed into a useful material brought a smile to his face.

Ogen hopes biofoam will create First Nations jobs that were lost when the pine beetle epidemic swept through their timber industry.

“One of our main goals is to make sure that our next generations are taken care of and made sure that they have good job opportunities,” he said.

“With this opportunity, we don’t necessarily have to look (only) at our backyard. There are other areas in Western Canada we could look at, even in the United States or overseas … I think there’s a great opportunity to make it a worldwide success.”

Biofoam’s texture is close to Styrofoam and can be similarly fashioned into different shapes. Its natural origins make biofoam slightly darker in colour.

While the specific ingredients remain a secret, it’s made by grinding the wood into fibre to create a slurry, then adding non-toxic chemicals, and finally putting the mixture into an oven at 80 C.

Jiang said the process is similar to baking.

“After a couple of hours, we take it out, just like a big cake,” said Jiang.

Investors and manufacturers are now being sought to launch a pilot plant to produce biofoam in B.C. next year.

A side benefit of the project could be mitigating forest fires that are fuelled by wood waste, Jiang said.

The project’s intellectual property is shared by Jiang’s team and the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, UBC said in a statement.

Jiang said environmental sustainability is his passion, and although it isn’t realistic to substitute all plastics with natural fibres, he wants to stress what he called the three Rs: reusing, recycling and replacing plastics.

“Whenever I see a product in the market, I always think: can we replace it with natural fibre? I also keep asking my students the same question. Throughout my whole career, I want to use my knowledge and expertise to create something that is beneficial to the society and to the planet,” said Jiang.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 21, 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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Oilsands execs say they can’t invest in decarbonization any faster, despite profits

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By Nojoud Al Mallees in Ottawa

Oilsands executives insist they are all in on cutting emissions and will make big investments in green technology, but they maintain there isn’t a place to invest that money yet.

Many companies are coming off a year of windfall profits not because they pumped out more product, but because the war in Ukraine and global supply chain crunches pushed world oil prices way up.

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault has said repeatedly over the last year that the companies need to prove their commitment by putting some of that cold hard cash into climate initiatives.

But in an interview with The Canadian Press, Cenovus CEO Alex Pourbaix said the companies are moving “as aggressively as (they) can.”

“We’re not yet at the point where we can invest billions in these projects,” Pourbaix said.

Cenovus is one of six oilsands companies in the Pathways Alliance, a consortium created to work together to decarbonize their production entirely by 2050. The companies are looking to spend $24 billion by 2030 on emissions cutting, including two-thirds of that on carbon capture and storage systems.

However, who will pay for those investments is a point of contention.

So far, the consortium has spent half a billion dollars on Phase 1 of these projects, according to the alliance’s president Kendall Dilling.

The industry is hoping to see the federal government do more to match the funding being offered by the U.S. government to incentivize the development of clean energy in that country.

The Liberal government has argued it has already created incentives for the industry, including an investment tax credit for carbon capture and storage projects, and that it’s now time for the industry to step up.

“If they don’t make those investments while they’re making record-level profits, then when would it be a good time for them to make those investments?” Guilbeault said in an interview last September.

“If not now, then I don’t know when.”

Oil and gas companies have enjoyed record profits in the last couple of years thanks to skyrocketing energy prices. At a time when inflation is at decades-high levels, the growth of corporate profits has come under intense scrutiny, with some calling for windfall taxes to capture the excess profits.

In a new report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, senior economist David Macdonald found that for every dollar Canadians spent on rising prices over the last two years, 25 cents went toward oil and gas sector profits.

However, Pourbaix rejected the notion that the industry needs to contribute more to government coffers.

“I think we are already contributing significantly,” he said, estimating the industry will pay somewhere between $10 billion and $12 billion in federal taxes this year.

Pourbaix said countries that have opted for windfall taxes on the oil and gas sector have far less progressive tax systems than Canada.

However, Andrew Leach, an economics professor at the University of Calgary, said it’s difficult to make comparisons across countries because in Canada the industry pays both royalties and taxes.

And while there is much debate about the appropriateness of windfall taxes, the federal government and some experts are concerned about the industry choosing not to invest these profits in carbon capture projects that would help decarbonize the oilsands.

“I would worry that their strategy here is, ‘We can get Canadians excited about this and that will push the federal government to put more dollars in to defray some of the investment costs,'” said Leach.

He warned that strategy could backfire as Canadians watch the industry rake record profits and send cash to shareholders.

“If Canadian started asking, ‘Well, if the owners of the oilsands companies aren’t willing to make this bet, why should we?’ then I think that becomes problematic for them.”

Pourbaix said the spending will come in later phases of these projects and that in the meantime, shareholders need to be rewarded.

Many of the Canadian oil and gas giants have opted to do that through corporate share buybacks.

That prompted the federal government to introduce a two per cent corporate stock buyback tax to incentivize companies to reinvest profits rather than reward shareholders.

But some advocates want to see the federal government go further.

Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada, said the fact that the industry won’t actually put money behind their rhetoric on climate change is a good reason to implement a windfall tax.

“They’re still waiting for the government to come and pay for them,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2023.

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Powell: Fed has only narrow role to play on climate change

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By Christopher Rugaber in Washington

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Reserve has only a limited role to play in combating climate change, Chair Jerome Powell said Tuesday, a stance that puts him at odds with environmental activists who have pushed central banks worldwide to take steps to restrict lending to energy companies.

“Without explicit congressional legislation, it would be inappropriate for us to use our monetary policy or supervisory tools to promote a greener economy or to achieve other climate-based goals,” Powell said in prepared remarks to be delivered during a panel discussion in Stockholm hosted by Sweden’s central bank.

“We are not, and will not be, a ‘climate policymaker.’ ”

In his written remarks, Powell stuck to the topic of central bank independence, the subject of the panel, and did not comment on the Fed’s interest rate policies.

Climate activists have pushed central banks, including the Fed, to use their supervisory powers over commercial banks to push for greater consideration of environmental risks in lending.

Natural disasters, made more common by climate change, could impose significant financial losses on banks, which would require more capital held in reserve. Activist groups also argue that lending to oil and gas companies should be seen as risky.

Powell did acknowledge the Fed has “narrow, but important responsibilities” to use its oversight of banks to ensure that they manage the risks of climate change.

The Fed has taken modest steps to consider climate change risks, including joining the Network for Greening the Financial System, an international group central banks and regulators.

That move and other speeches about climate change by Fed officials had come under criticism from congressional Republicans.

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