Circular Economy

9 things you didn’t know could be made from wood

image of some cut logs

Wood can be put to a range of unexpected uses. Image: Unsplash/Dejan Zakic

Natalie Marchant
Writer, Forum Agenda
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One Trillion Trees

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  • Berlin is planning to build Europe's highest wooden building to date, to cut down on concrete and steel.
  • Wood is key to creating a circular bioeconomy.
  • Many of the modern-day uses for wood date back thousands of years.
  • About 1.6 billion people rely on forests for their livelihoods.

Take a look around you. Chances are you see items made from wood. Your desk, parts of the building you’re in, maybe a fruit bowl. Wood is so commonplace we take it for granted. But it also has some surprising uses and crops up in everyday items you might not know contained wood products. Here are some examples.

Have you read?

1. Supercar

The typical supercar buyer might have titanium, carbon fibre and kevlar on the checklist. Wood? Not likely, unless it forms the expensive trim around the dashboard.

image of the Nano Cellulose Vehicle is a prototype supercar made from wood products
The Nano Cellulose Vehicle is a prototype supercar made from wood products. Image: Japanese Ministry of Environment

But now there’s a supercar made from cellulose nanofiber – a wood-derived material that is stronger than steel. It was commissioned by the Japanese government as part of a project to explore cutting emissions in car manufacturing. It weighs 50% less than traditional supercars.

2. Chewing gum

While modern-day chewing gum relies on synthetic sap substitutes, it was traditionally made from chicle – a milky latex from the sapodilla tree. Ancient civilizations such as the Aztecs enjoyed chewing it.

3. Water filters

Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineers used xylem tissue from sapwood to create filters that can purify water. Prototypes tested in India showed that xylem filters could potentially be used to filter bacteria and viruses from contaminated drinking water.

4. Car wax

The carnauba wax found in many car wax brands comes from the leaves of the Copernicia prunifera, a palm tree that grows exclusively in Brazil. It’s harvested by drying and beating the leaves.

5. Skyscrapers

Timber skyscrapers can be built faster, more cheaply and with less of an environmental impact than traditional concrete and steel structures.

Berlin is planning to build Europe's highest wooden building to date, using engineered wood known as cross-laminated timber, which cuts down on concrete and steel. Known as WoHo, the 29-storey has been designed by Norway’s Mad Arkitekter.

image of The Brock Commons Tower in Vancouver
The Brock Commons Tower in Vancouver has a smaller carbon footprint than a comparable traditional building Image: University of British Columbia

Meanwhile, construction of Vancouver’s 18-story Brock Commons tower offset an estimated 2,432 tonnes of carbon. It houses students in what is currently the tallest timber building in the world.

6. 3D printer ink

Environmentally friendly ink based on cellulose nanocrystals has been created by scientists at Swiss materials science lab Empa. The technology could be used for the 3D printing of implants and other biomedical applications, they say.

7. Aspirin

Willow bark has been used in traditional medicine to relieve pain and treat fevers for thousands of years. But it wasn’t until the 1800s that the active ingredient – salicin – was discovered, which would later form the basis of aspirin.

8. Sponges

Eco-friendly domestic sponges are often made from wood-derived cellulose. However, scientists have also used balsa wood to create an oil-absorbing sponge that absorbs up to 41 times its weight. It could prove invaluable in cleaning up oil spills.

Why the world needs to protect trees

Wood will be a key material in creating a circular bioeconomy – a conceptual framework that relies on natural capital to manage food, land and industrial systems. The aim is to achieve sustainable wellbeing in harmony with nature.

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However, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that, despite a slowing of the rate of deforestation in the last decade, some 10 million hectares of forest cover is still lost each year through conversion to agriculture and other land uses.

Responsible forestry and land management will be vital in managing this invaluable, renewable resource.

And while wooden, eco-friendly supercars are likely to remain a novelty, they show the potential for creating new products from ancient materials that could lead us into a more sustainable future.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Circular EconomySustainable DevelopmentClimate Action
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