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Woodwool: A packaging material of the future

It’s ironic that such a traditional material with such a long history behind it should at the same time be poised to be a favourite packaging material of the future.

But it’s thanks, in part, to the same cultural shift that now defines plastic – once the wonderstuff of an ultramodern era – as deeply problematic and mountingly unpopular.

For good reason. History will probably look back and see 2017 as the turning-point. That was the year the BBC’s Blue Planet II – now thought to have been watched by 750 million people around the world – revealed in unflinching detail the appalling damage done by plastic debris to beaches, oceans and marine ecosystems.

To describe the resulting mobilisation of public concern as revolutionary is no understatement. It’s known, simply, as ‘the blue planet effect’.

A YouGov poll from last April put the feeling into figures: over 80% of Britons are now actively trying to reduce the amount of plastic they throw away; they are now more likely to buy eco-friendly packaging than plastic (even at a higher price); and most now believe that companies should be legally obliged to use eco-friendly packaging.

And it is specifically plastic packaging that has become the standout issue. A massive 67% of the UK plastics waste stream consists of thrown away packaging – a statistic which dwarfs that of any other source sector.

The problem is so big, and public anxiety about it so strong, that it is perhaps not surprising to see the wheels of fundamental change already in motion.

Great British Woodwool is determined to play its part in the packaging revolution unfolding before us. The opportunities are considerable; but first it is necessary to highlight that woodwool is not a commodity: quite the opposite – it is a product to which much value can be added through the manufacturing process. For packaging, the woodwool must reflect the quality of the goods it surrounds, whether fine china, a delicate wine or a scrumptious cheese.

This year the UK government announced a new tax on plastic packaging, manufactured or imported, that does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic. And industry giants are openly signalling their willingness to act. Nestlé, the world’s biggest food and drink company, has committed to a target of 100% recyclable or reusable packaging, including the elimination of non-recyclable plastics, by 2025.

Unfortunately, as encouraging as these moves are, they are not, in themselves, going to be enough.

That’s because the recycling of plastic is not the solution it has sometimes been made out to be. From one perspective, recycling plastic actually camouflages the problem it purports to solve; from another, it adds new ones.

It is not like recycling glass or aluminium: recycling plastic significantly downgrades the material’s chemical structure, meaning that its new application must be correspondingly downgraded (from bottles to carpets, for example), before – just like non-recyclable plastics – it must eventually be either incinerated or buried.

In this sense, recycling plastic is just putting off the inevitable.

It’s also expensive (often more so than making it fresh) and very hard work. The painstaking cleaning, sorting and separating out of recyclable from non-recyclable plastics needs to be carried out both manually and by machine, and the consequences of inefficiency (such as overlooked elements of non-recyclable PVC) can fatally compromise entire recycling streams. Meanwhile, the melting down of viable plastic produces fumes toxic to the nearby environment.

Operational logistics can also lead to headaches – as they have in recent years for the UK.

These began in 2018 when China stopped taking the 500,000 tonnes of plastic the UK was in the habit of shipping there every year for recycling. A consequent rush to find alternative overseas contractors led to a massive diversion of plastic to Malaysia, which was in turn so overwhelmed that last year it had to impose restrictions on what it could continue to take.

Now, with the pressure passed on to outfits in places like Turkey, investigators there have identified UK plastics, intended for recycling, being dumped by the roadside and openly burned.

It’s a dispiriting narrative. And it drives home the point that – to put it mildly – plastics can end up being more trouble than they’re worth.

Few, of course, dispute plastic’s legitimate applications; how, in certain forms, it can even benefit the environment: its preservative properties can cut food waste; it can help make buildings more energy-efficient; by making vehicles lighter, it can improve their fuel-efficiency.

But plastic packaging? The stark inconsistency of what campaigner Sîan Sutherland calls ‘a temporary use for a permanent product’ has never been more obvious.

It’s a major realisation; and a major turn in the road. As for new directions – they’re already emerging.

Where plastic’s particular qualities are currently most valued and would in the future be most missed – in certain forms of food packaging, for example – many are setting store by the development of bioplastics: a new generation of biodegradable plastics made from such organic source material as cornstarch and seaweed.

Then there are those attempting to get away from the world of disposable packaging altogether, exploring a zero-waste economy in which goods like pasta, oil and tea might move about in continually redeployed stainless steel and glass containers.

Somewhere in between lies the sphere of completely natural packaging materials – the kind of thing that, at the end of its life, can be thrown into the compost or garden mulch and so complete the environmental circle. Not so much cradle to grave, as they’re now saying, as cradle to cradle.

And it’s here that woodwool – being entirely untreated organic matter – can play a starring role.

Great British Woodwool sees the opportunities as boundless, and reach well beyond the contents of hampers or high-end wine cases. From machine parts and masonry to electrical goods, household items and the most delicate gifts – the list is a very long one.

Though, from the environment’s point of view, it can’t really be long enough.

Welcome to the world of woodwool

Don’t be fooled by its simplicity. There’s an awful lot more to woodwool than meets the eye.

Though we concede that what does meet the eye is certainly pretty. It’s that material that looks like straw in luxury hampers and champagne presentation boxes – except it’s not straw. It’s handfuls of very fine, very long wood shavings. The Americans call it Excelsior; here in the UK it’s woodwool.

We’ll get onto its surprising versatility shortly. But it probably is as a packaging material that it’s best-known. And it’s also as a packaging material that we think it’s got a particularly big future. The reason? It’s 100% natural.

Surveys tell us that the protective packaging industry is booming – but that it’s also transforming. Not only are more and more of us buying things online, we’re finding increasingly responsible ways of keeping our purchases safe in transit. Manufacturers of bubble wrap and polystyrene peanuts are doing their best to make those materials recyclable so they don’t end up in landfill. But, for a growing number of us, a completely biodegradable product is the only acceptable way forward.

Woodwool is one of those products. And it’s already a firm favourite for certain types of package, especially in the food and drink industry. It looks great with real outdoor produce, like fresh fruit, and suits anything hand-crafted, like soaps or ceramics. It feels retro and contemporary at the same time. People talk these days about the ‘unboxing’ experience – that thrill of opening a beautiful package where every element has visual appeal. Woodwool plays a big part in those experiences.

There’s another way in which woodwool is helping the environment that you might not realise. Manufacturing this product actually improves the health of the forests that the wood comes from. That’s because woodlands, like our neighbouring Leighton Estate, benefit from thinning. If they grow too densely, trees end up being uniformly underdeveloped. You need to make sure they have enough space and light of their own to achieve the right, healthy stature. So cutting down some trees for timber and timber products leaves a better forest behind.

If, by the way, you were to follow some of that timber just a few miles down the road to our workshop (again: small carbon footprint. You’ll have guessed by now how we feel about the environment.) you’d see how we make our woodwool. Imagine short sections of debarked tree trunk fixed in place over razor-sharp lathes shuttling back and forth across the undersides. It’s a bit like watching giant cheese-graters at work (the fine shavings that pile up underneath even look a bit like parmesan).

And that’s about it. We can vary the grade of shredding (from 0.35mm to 0.05mm), and it’s always dried to make it light and fluffy, it really is that natural.

But back to how useful the product is – and how there’s much more to it than just packaging.

It’s perfect for animal bedding. Whether for the hamster cage or kennels and catteries – or even the local safari park – it’s a lot better than straw or hay. It’s got volume and sponginess for warmth; it’s highly absorbent (because of the drying); it’s clean and dust-free; and it’s long-lasting. Animals like playing with it; they love to make nests and dens out of it and to forage through it for treats.

Then there’s the really big beasts: teddy bears. Toy stuffing was one of the very first uses of woodwool back in the nineteenth century (when it was also used to stuff quilts – not, perhaps, the first thing we’d recommend it for these days). But if you’ve ever seen the Two Bear Ladies on BBC One’s Repair Shop (they’re customers of ours), you’ll know that the tradition continues to this day. What our friends in the crafting business particularly like is the way that, if you dampen little snippets of very fine woodwool and use it to fill the trickiest nooks and pockets of an antique teddy, it dries out to give a wonderfully firm, solid shape.

Some uses of woodwool you just wouldn’t guess at. Pads in evaporative air coolers, for example. Air gets cooled down in this kind of air conditioning machine by being passed through special porous pads before being pumped back out into the room; the pads work by holding onto cold water which is constantly circulated through them. Woodwool makes a good choice of material for this.

But its ultimate hidden talent has got to be for vinegar manufacture. We learned all about it from Sarson’s when they proposed we join forces (our larch woodwool from the afore mentioned Leighton Estate turned out to trump everything they’d used in the past). Apparently, the woodwool is used as a substrate for the acetobacter – or “good” bacteria that convert alcohol into vinegar. You can read about the full process here.

We could go on. Archery bales; bonded woodwool construction boards; erosion control mats. That last one is an especially neat idea. When large quantities of earth get moved around (by construction sites or road builders, for example), those new mounds, planted with grass seeds, need holding in place and protecting from the elements. Matting for the purpose has all too often been made of plastic. But make it out of woodwool – as many now do – and not only is the earth kept in place while new growth comes up from underneath, but the material naturally, over time, turns into nutritious mulch.

Which brings us back to biogdegradability and the environment.

If this whirlwind tour of our product has a takeaway theme, we’d like you to think of it as this: versatile, affordable, even nice to look at are must-have qualities, no question. But we’ve got a future to protect, too. And we think that’s the most important box we tick.