Tropical timber can cut demand for fossil-derived plastics and contribute to a circular economy

5 June 2023

Tropical wood products can be used as a substitute for plastics in many applications. Photo: ITTO

Yokohama, Japan, 5 June 2023: Timber, especially tropical timber, has considerable potential for reducing the environmental footprint of plastics by replacing them in everyday uses, stated ITTO Executive Director Sheam Satkuru on World Environment Day

The focus of World Environment Day 2023 is on accelerating action to cut plastics pollution and transition to a circular economy. An ITTO study on the future of tropical timber supply and demand reported that more than 90% of plastics produced today are derived from virgin fossil-fuel feedstock, with a significant carbon impact that will become even bigger as demand continues to grow. 

According to the United Nations, if all plastics waste in the ocean was collected, it would fill 5 million shipping containers. Most plastics produced today do not biodegrade, instead breaking into smaller and smaller fragments over time; these microplastics are a looming hazard for human health and the environment.

“With plastics production projected to more than triple by 2050, it is clear that we need to do something to limit and shrink its environmental impact,” said Ms Satkuru. 

One pathway for doing so is to switch plastics production from fossil fuels to biomaterials such as wood. According to the ITTO study, the global pulp-and-paper industry is investing in research and development in this area and “it is reasonable to assume that, by 2050, competitive cellulose-based plastic substitutes will be available on the market”.

“The production of bioplastics is a potential big growth opportunity for the forest sector,” agreed Ms Satkuru. “But an even better, more immediate way to reduce the problem of plastics pollution is to use wood products in place of plastic ones.”

Wood, including tropical wood, can be used as a substitute for plastics in many applications, from outdoor furniture to packaging. When sustainably produced, wood products have low environmental impacts, and they can be easily recycled and reused. 

Wood and other biomaterials must ultimately form the basis of sustainable economies, Ms Satkuru said. 

“The three key elements of a circular economy are eliminating waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use for as long as possible, and regenerating natural systems,” she said. “Timber, and sustainable forest management, provide all three of these.”

According to the United Nations, a shift to a global circular economy would reduce the volume of plastics entering oceans by over 80% by 2040; reduce virgin plastics production by 55%; save governments USD 70 billion by 2040; reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 25%; and create 700 000 additional jobs – mainly in the global south.

The increased use of tropical wood for purposes that otherwise would involve plastics would not only lessen the planetary problem of plastics pollution but bring many other benefits, including for local communities.

“The sustainable harvesting of tropical timber adds value to forests while conserving them, providing communities with livelihoods and countries with much-needed revenue,” said Ms Satkuru. “Whenever they can, consumers should choose sustainably produced wood over plastics.”

ITTO’s vast project portfolio includes many projects to encourage sustainable forest management, sustainable timber production and locally driven forest industries.