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UBC researcher develops plastic alternative from forest waste

Dr. Feng Jiang breaks down wood fibres in a chemical solution to create a translucent, strong and water-resistant film.

UBC researcher Dr. Feng Jiang has developed a cellulose film from wood pulp that is strong and biodegradable. The product is an alternative to plastic. Photo credit: Paulo Ramos – UBC Faculty of Forestry.
UBC researcher Dr. Feng Jiang has developed a cellulose film from wood pulp that is strong and biodegradable. The product is an alternative to plastic. Photo credit: Paulo Ramos – UBC Faculty of Forestry. jpg

UBC researcher Dr. Feng Jiang has spent years concerned about how plastic is contributing to the ecological crisis the world faces, and contemplating solutions.

Now he has developed a cellulose film that is as strong as plastic but is biodegradable, using a unique chemical process.

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Jiang, an assistant professor at UBC’s Faculty of Forestry and the Canada research chair in sustainable functional biomaterials, uses wood fibres collected from forest waste.  He breaks down the wood fibres in a solution of cold sodium hydroxide, and from that he can make a product that is translucent, strong and water-resistant film.

The durable film can break down in the environment within three weeks, he said.

“After harvesting and after making wood products like lumber, there’s still a lot of residual waste,” he said, in an interview Friday.

“So we wanted to see how we can turn those residuals into something valuable, into something that can be more sustainable and biodegradable to replace the plastic.”

Other researchers have also developed biodegradable films to replace plastic but the UBC project—funded by the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development—is the first to use small amounts of energy and chemicals in the manufacture.

UBC researcher Dr. Feng Jiang has developed a cellulose film from wood pulp that is strong and biodegradable. Photo credit: Paulo Ramos – UBC Faculty of Forestry.
UBC researcher Dr. Feng Jiang has developed a cellulose film from wood pulp that is strong and biodegradable. Photo credit: Paulo Ramos – UBC Faculty of Forestry. jpg
UBC researcher Dr. Feng Jiang has developed a cellulose film from wood pulp that is strong and biodegradable. Photo credit: Paulo Ramos – UBC Faculty of Forestry.
UBC researcher Dr. Feng Jiang has developed a cellulose film from wood pulp that is strong and biodegradable. Photo credit: Paulo Ramos – UBC Faculty of Forestry. jpg

He said the film can be made into coffee or snack bags, or pouches for cereal or protective wrap such as envelopes.

“There are so many uses for this in the market and for commercial products,” he said. “Some plastics take up to a million years to decompose, but this can break down in the environment in a very short time.”

Jiang said they are hoping to bring their plastic alternative to market soon and are reaching out to potential companies that they could partner with to manufacture the product.

“We are just watching to see if people are interested and if they are they can contact me at UBC. We are happy to discuss about collaboration or scaling up.”

ticrawford@postmedia.com