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Meet IIIEE researcher Åke Thidell

Swedish wood: Innovative products for a circular economy
IIIEE researcher Åke Thidell Photo: Sara Bernstrup Nilsson

Can Swedish wood be the answer to our future needs, from T-shirts to 10-storey apartment buildings? The challenge is not the technology, but how society can support the development of this market. It has the potential for creating both a sustainable and circular economy. 

Saying that Sweden and Finland are territories covered by forests, is no exaggeration. For centuries, wood has been one of the financially most important major natural resources of our two countries, but during the last decade the related pulp and paper industry has faced increasing challenges.

These include high costs of wood raw material compared to countries in warmer climates, as well as increasing energy prices. A third factor is the digital revolution, which has drastically reduced the demand for paper-based newspapers and other print.

“And on top of this development, Nordic forests are growing faster due to a milder climate and a rise in fertilising nitrogen emissions. So all in all, forests are growing faster than we’re cutting them down”, says Åke Thidell, IIIEE researcher with a special interest in cleaner production within the industry, and the promotion of environmentally friendly products and services. He continues:

“Simultaneously, we see a development towards an increased awareness and demand for sustainable products in a more circular economy where resources are used in a smarter way. All together, these factors come together in a general question: How can society support the renewal of an industry based on wood as raw material in a way that contributes to a circular economy and a sustainable society?”

This question is the base for the project that IIIEE is involved in together with Finnish SYKE and Aalto University School of Business. The project has recently started so the results are not ready yet, but the project has already generated interesting questions and challenges.

“If the forest industry is no longer dependent on the need for pulp and paper, then how can we make use of this green resource? Our hypothesis is that the pulp industry and its bio-refineries must reach a new level. Seeing the pulp mill as a flexible refinery helps us understand its capacity as a producer of biologically based products, replacing products that used to be produced from oil. Plastics, chemicals, textile fibres, heating, oil and so on – all out of wood”, says Åke Thidell.

“Our task is to provide an understanding of how new business models and national policies can enable this shift”, says Åke Thidell giving two examples of questions investigated in the study that suggests new paths for the pulp industry:

“One is how we can alter wood construction techniques in order to build taller and larger buildings than what is possible today. A good solution would expand the market tremendously.”

The answer, according to Åke Thidell, may involve a more modular way of production, resulting in more flexible and efficient transportation, construction and buildings, which would all provide a more sustainable and circular economy and product.

Another example of new applications for wood is the textile industry. Textile consumption is estimated to triple by 2050, due to population increase and most of all due to a growing middle class with an increasing consumption of clothing. Neither cotton- nor oil-based materials are sustainable, so new materials are needed.

“Wood fibres could be a solution, but innovative ideas and processes are still needed. The potential is enormous”, says Åke Thidell.

Together with his colleagues in Sweden and Finland, Åke Thidell is now mapping actors of the market, focusing on entrepreneurs and innovators. The collected material will result in an analysis of current policies, which in its turn will hopefully clarify what further policies are needed.

Åke Thidell says: “There is no lack of ideas for new applications and products. The true challenge is how to bring them to the market and scale up the production. There is where our work will hopefully be important.

Text: Sara Bernstrup Nilsson

Renewal of manufacturing towards a sustainable circular bioeconomy and implications for innovation policy (RECIBI)

  • IIIEE researchers: Åke Thidell, Carl Dalhammar, Håkan Rodhe and Philip Peck
  • Project period: November 2014–December 2016
  • Budget: SEK 2 875 000 (Swedish part)
  • Funding agency: Vinnova
  • Academic partner in Finland: SYKE (Riina Antikainen) and Aalto University School of Business (Prof. Armi Temmes)

Read more about this project here 

Read more about IIIEE research

Yuliya Voytenko: Closing the loops in the shared city?
Luis Mundaca: Green economy depends on high national ambitions
Naoko Tojo: Textile – a remaining waste challenge


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International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics (IIIEE)

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