Dr. Feng Jiang (UBC) and Reg Ogen, (Wet’suwet’en First Nation/Yinka Dene Economic Development), exchanged more insight about their unique collaboration with WATERTODAY.
WT: Dr. Jiang, your research profile states that novel material developed in your lab will help reduce the carbon footprint and create a sustainable society. What was your motivation behind this objective?
Jiang: The motivation behind this is to decarbonize the economy, by shifting our petroleum-based economy to a bio-based economy. We are innovating in novel, green, and sustainable technologies to better utilize bio-based renewable resources.
WT: Your lab has created a solution to a problem. What is the problem and what is your solution?
Jiang: We are trying to solve the most pressing problem that the entire world is facing – plastic pollution. The world is cooped up by Styrofoam, which is not degradable and will stay in the environment for billions of years as it bloats up to 30 percent of landfills around the world. Based on our research, our solution is to produce a Styrofoam alternative using bio-based waste fibres from the post-harvest forest.
WT: The “biomass” you are developing serves several purposes. Please elaborate.
Jiang: Firstly, it can solve the plastic pollution issue as the Biofoam we produced is biodegradable.
Secondly, it can reduce our reliance on fossil fuel as biomass is abundant on the earth.
Thirdly, it utilizes biofibre residues left in the forest, which can mitigate wildfire hazards.
Fourthly, it can help to build bioeconomy in remote areas and First Nation communities.
WT: What are the potential uses for this biomass product? What are the advantages over what is currently in use?
Jiang: It can potentially be used in protective packaging for cushioning. It can also be used as thermal insulation containers for food packaging, as well as in the construction industry. Most of the current products are non-biodegradable.
WT: You have a pilot project planned. Please tell us more. Do you see this moving to a start-up business?
Jiang: The pilot plant will be built in 2023, with support from the Office of Chief Forester, BC Ministry of Forest. We are investigating the possibility of forming a joint venture between UBC and YLP (Yinka Dene Economic Development Limited Partnership).
WT: How did you become involved with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation? What has this meant for you and your team?
Jiang: I met Reg Ogen of the Yinka Dene Economic Development Limited Partnership (YLP) in a workshop organized by the Innovation, Bioeconomy, and Indigenous Opportunities Branch of the Office of Chief Forester, BC Ministry of Forest in 2019.
I learned about their interest in bioeconomy, especially on how to better utilize their forest residues. We have been working together for two years.
Working with First Nation is an exciting and enjoyable process, which provides me with more thoughts about reconciliation.
With this collaboration opportunity, my wish is for our university technologies to benefit the community. In addition, I consider this a great learning opportunity that I can be inspired by the wisdom of the First Nations.
WT: What is your vision moving forward?
Jiang: I hope we will have full commercialization plants in BC in 3 years.
WT: Reg, your Nation’s Forest suffered considerable damage in the last decades. What caused this?
Ogen: The past logging practices. The mountain pine beetle epidemic created the rush to harvest before the damaged trees rotted. More frequent and intensive temperature wildfires compounded the losses and damage.
WT: How has the devastation affected the community and the biodiversity?
Ogen: The forest is our pharmacy, our supermarket, our place of worship, and our cultural centre. Without a healthy and robust forest, our culture will diminish. We have already seen the losses in habitat for our cultural foods, medicines, and water quality and quantity.
Not being able to take my daughter and her relatives into the forest to learn our ways and culture is devastating.
Increased predation, compromised waterways, and losses in habitat have created imbalances in the ecosystems. With climate change, these imbalances are even more profound.
Industry, agriculture, and infrastructure have impacted the hydrological process. What took millions of years to create and cultivate achieved a harmony that is now in serious threat. Most significantly, the salmon highways. Without salmon and forests, my daughter's generation will not be fully schooled in the Wet’suwet’en Culture and Traditions.
WT: What threats would continue to loom over the community if forest devastation were to remain unchecked?
Ogen: There will be a destruction of the wetlands. Losses in biofilters that provide clean water for the salmon and a loss of safe drinking water for the community would be our downfall into unemployment, lack of affordable housing, poor education.
Continued loss of biodiversity and robust ecosystems would mean that species which comforted us would no longer be resilient in the face of climate change.
WT: What has collaboration with Dr. Jiang meant for you? Your community?
Ogen: This is a unique collaboration. I must give credit to Dr. Jiang and the team for their enthusiasm and support. The Innovation, Bioeconomy, and Indigenous Opportunities Branch from the Ministry of Forests is also a great partner in enhancing the project.
Together we said, “We can do this by listening and learning from each other’s cultures!” This is a big step for us in ensuring the Pillars of UNDRIP (Bill 41) are realized.
I am hoping this project will encourage our children to see that they can do this type of work when they grow up. Also important is that First Nations can realize they too can go to university and become solution seekers. How powerful would that be, a combination of our traditional holistic culture and western science?
This project is founded in the future.
Together we can practise Risk Management by sharing our knowledge and expertise with a common goal of ensuring there is a future for seven generations.
WT: What do you hope the pilot project will achieve?
Ogen: Proof of concept to attract investments
WT: Any thoughts on a start-up business?
Ogen: Excitement. As a First Nation, we will be a true partner in the forest industry...finally!
The most devastating problem for today and the future is climate change. We can incorporate a solution vehicle through the holistic perspectives of my people to create best practices.