If you were asked what can be made from trees, you might say wood or maybe paper. And you’d be right, but there are many other materials that come from trees (and other forest plants) that may not be so obvious. Each part of the tree has multiple uses, some of which might just surprise you!
Wood is made up of cellulose fibres and lignin. Lignin is what gives trees their strength and stability as it acts as a glue in plant cell walls, bonding the cellulose fibres together. Lignin can be used in a variety of different products including fuels, food flavourings and adhesives. Research is also underway to use it as a plastic.
Pulp is a watery mixture of cellulose wood fibres, lignin and water made by either mechanically grinding wood chips or using chemicals to separate and remove the lignin.
To make paper, pulp is spread out onto a mesh to allow the fibres to bond together, the water is removed, and the pulp is dried out and compressed into a roll of paper. What the paper is then used for depends on how the pulp was made. Paper made by mechanical pulping, which still contains lignin, is used for items such as newspapers, catalogues, and tissues. Higher quality paper is made via chemical pulping, because without the lignin it is brighter and stays whiter for longer. Paper made by chemical pulping is often called ‘wood-free’. The name comes from the fact that lignin is sometimes referred to as ‘the wood’, although the pulp to make it is still sourced from trees.
Pulp is often added to food such as pancakes, milkshakes, and cheese, as the cellulose can add texture and thickness, and is safe for human consumption. Wood pulp is also used in cosmetics. Cellulose allows toothpaste to bind to water, and adds strengthening and quick-drying properties to nail polish.
It’s difficult to picture how wood can be transformed into a soft textile, but it is possible! Over 150 million trees are logged every year and turned into cellulosic fabric. Viscose, also known as rayon, is a popular material for making clothing such as tights, blouses, and synthetic velvet. It is made from the cellulose in wood pulp which is dissolved in chemicals and spun into a fine thread.
Wood pulp can even be used to make transparent films used as an alternative to plastic for packaging foods. These films can also be compostable.
Bark from various tree species has long been used in traditional medicine.
Willow bark was the ancient Egyptian version of aspirin. It is now used in cosmetics to treat acne and exfoliate the skin, and to treat lower back pain.
© Gabriel HemeryScots pine bark has anti-inflammatory compounds and could potentially be used to manage arthritis and treat high blood pressure and asthma.
Bark from the cork oak tree, found mostly in Portugal and Spain, is used to make wine corks.
Tree bark is also used in glues, dyes and waxes, particleboard and fibreboard, to absorb spilled oil, and as a fuel.
Although bamboo is actually a grass, it can occur naturally in forests and is grown in plantations. Bamboo stems have a variety of uses including material for roads, buildings, scaffolding, floors, and furniture. Fibres from bamboo stems are also used to make clothes, paper, and packaging.
© WWF IndonesiaRattan is a climbing or trailing palm which has strong, solid stalks and is commonly used for baskets, furniture, and crafts.
Screw pine leaves are frequently used to weave mats and make roof thatches.
Leaves from a variety of tree species are now even used to create ‘leaf leather’ products as a more ethical alternative to traditional leather.
Coir fibre from the coconut palm tree is taken from the outer husk of green coconuts to make yarn, rope, and material for ships and floors, and from brown coconuts for mattress stuffing. Coconut oil is extracted from the kernel of the coconut and used in cooking and to hydrate skin and hair.
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of the African oil palm tree and is used for cooking, food processing, in personal care products, and fuel. Palm oil is a controversial ingredient as its cultivation is a driver of deforestation in some of the world’s most biodiverse areas. However, it is a very efficient crop and produces more oil per land area than any other vegetable oil crop, so boycotting it could make matters worse. Looking out for certified sustainable palm oil helps to ensure it was sourced responsibly.
Resin is a thick liquid produced through the bark of many tree species including pine, yew, fir and cedar trees. Humans have been using resin for thousands of years. Some of the uses of resin are glue, turpentine, varnish, incense, essential oils, soap, and it was even used to create the world’s first chewing gum. Due to its antimicrobial and antibacterial properties, it has also been used to soothe rashes, treat wounds, and as a foot ointment for horses and cows.
© Martin KunzWhen we look at car and bike tyres, the soles of our shoes, erasers, and balloons, it’s difficult to imagine that they come from trees! Latex is a tree sap and is collected from the rubber tree through the trunk, and then made into rubber.
FSC certification can be applied to all sorts of different forest products. Utilising the many benefits of forests and exploring the potential applications of the materials they provide can help to ensure their preservation. Ensuring that forests are managed responsibly helps to secure supplies of the vast range of materials they offer.