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How wood-based plastics may enable circular building materials

  • 3 min reading

Adapteo

Have you heard of wood-based plastic?

It could be one solution to the construction industry’s major challenges with circular transition due to its high material use. Peter Olsén is one of the researchers at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden (KTH) who developed a wood-based plastic that could be used for building materials and home furnishings in the future.

Peter leads a group of chemists who focus on new types of green materials. The vision of a circular material economy is a strong driving force behind their work. He hopes that his research will trigger more development toward the next generation of better material solutions.

You are a researcher at the Department of Biocomposites at the Department of Fiber and Polymer Technology at KTH. Where did your passion for research come from?

“I got my doctorate in degradable plastics, and it has been a dream to create plastic that is harmless to the environment. But I actually worked as a carpenter for about five years before I decided to pursue higher studies. In a way, I still use my carpenter thinking as a chemist, but on a micro level, as I build my own materials. “Circularity is an important challenge. If we take bio-based material from the forest and create plastic it does not necessarily mean that it is good for the environment.”

You and your colleagues recently published new research on wood-based degradable plastic. What have you developed?

“A degradable plastic is built around the wood fiber. We were interested in combining degradable plastic, which is often too weak, with durable wood fiber. The material is degradable, but still strong enough to be used the same way as certain fossil materials today.”

It sounds like a breakthrough. How were you able to develop this material?

“By understanding the roadblocks. Instead of continuing the path others had taken, we had to develop new chemistry for this problem, and link it to green chemistry. All parts come into play: how do we build, how is it made industrially viable, and can it be recycled? We think about circularity from a chemical perspective and how to go back and recreate the material.”

In what way is it circular and sustainable?

“First of all, it is truly degradable. We would of course prefer for plastic not to end up in nature at all, but it can still happen so it needs to be degradable. Secondly, it holds the potential to be recycled in a closed-loop fashion towards new wood-based plastic. The construction industry uses large volumes of materials and could become a role model in implementing a fully circular material economy.” Peter remembers his former experience as a carpenter and how they worked with recycling in construction. “We were carefully separating waste materials. Wood with wood, steel with steel, and so on. With an established system, it is easy to add a new material for recycling. The dream is an endless circular loop.”

What can the material you worked with be used for?

“It is best suited for indoor use. It could be used for solid furniture or wall panels, which can be collected and recycled once they’re no longer needed. The material’s properties are not strong enough for load-bearing structures yet – we wouldn’t want a building beam to break down too easily, for example. So we are currently working on a completely bio-based system with a much stronger degradable plastic, to take this to the next level.

Discussions about materials can sometimes seem very black and white. How do you feel about how we view natural versus synthetic materials?

“It is easy to think that plastic is bad and everything from nature is good. But reality doesn’t always look like that. We should see materials as materials, instead of automatically assessing that plastic is always the worst. I work with plastic and wood and love both materials. When you manage to combine the materials you get the best of both worlds. Synergy is the future.”

Adapteo commitments and goals

We’re committed to contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals where our business has an impact. Read about how we are contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

2022 Commitments

  • Certified wood in our buildings
  • Use of recycled & renewable materials
  • Renewable energy in our production
  • Reduced emissions from transports
  • Reuse of building modules
  • Efficient production methods
  • Energy-efficient buildings
  • Offering solar panels

2030 Goals

  • 100% climate-neutral production
  • 100% fossil-free transport
  • Phase out fossil plastics
  • Expand our circular flows