FAO Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia

Forests, plastics, and the circular economy

Single-use cutlery pollutes our oceans and takes thousands of years to decompose in landfills and trash heaps. Plastic forks and knives may photo-degrade with exposure to the sun, but they become microplastics that continue to pollute our environment.  

This is where wood and forests come into the picture: Disposable wooden spoons and forks can easily replace plastic ones. Like many other biodegradable products, their life cycle begins in forests which provide the necessary renewable resource: wood. When they are sourced from responsibly managed forests, their journey begins and ends in nature, and respects the environment during the entire time of their circular life.

The Joint UNECE/FAO Forestry and Timber Section issued a new publication Circularity concepts in forest-based industries at the forty-third session of the Joint ECE/FAO Working Party on Forest Statistics, Economics and Management which took place in Geneva on 1–3 June, explaining how forest-based industries — including fashion and plastics  — are transitioning to a circular economy, and what it means for them to not only be circular but also sustainable and environmentally neutral in the long term. The publication also contains examples of circularity practices in Europe and Central Asia.

The forest sector, Liliana Annovazzi-Jakab, Chief of the joint UNECE/FAO Forestry and Timber Section highlighted, is extremely efficient in using all material throughout the production process and along its various value chains. This can trigger the transition towards circular systems in other strategic sectors which, today, struggle with out-of-proportions environmental footprints — single-use plastics being one of them. While today, circular processes such as recycling still come with environmental and social costs, this will decrease over time.

“Under such conditions, forests can be the catalyzers of change for a circular economy; they provide a renewable, non-toxic material which can be used, re-used, re-purposed, recycled and biodegraded,” said Ekrem Yazici, Deputy Chief of the joint UNECE/FAO Forestry and Timber Section.

Forests and forest ecosystems have the capacity to naturally restore the quality of their resources and are a source of renewable and biodegradable products which can also substitute for finite and polluting materials. Different parts of a tree can be used and reused to manufacture various products, starting from the highest to the lowest quality grade in a cascading way.

However, replacing plastics with forest-based products will also increase the demand for wood. This, when the regenerative capacities of forest ecosystems are threatened by climate change, landscape degradation, soil erosion, forest fires and pests raises the question of whether plastics can really be replaced with wood as a fair and sustainable solution in the long term.

As the publications reveals, all depends on sustainable, responsible forest management practices which are key to the natural cycle of forests’ growth and renewal and, therefore, the sustainability of forest-based value chains. In fact, circularity and material efficiency may go only as far as the natural systems’ regeneration capacity allows.

More information about the Joint ECE/FAO Working Party on Forest Statistics, Economics and Management can be found here.

3 June 2022, Geneva, Switzerland