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Future of Maine's forest industry possibly lies in Finland

Finland, like Maine, has heritage forest industries. Over the last decade, Finland has grown a sustainable bioeconomy. Maine is trying to match it.

PORTLAND, Maine — Endless trees. Paper and pulp. If you compare a photo of Maine and Finland, only a few could tell the difference at first look. Both have a history of harvesting the forest. Both, over the last several years, have seen mill closures and a change in the paper industry. Over the last decade, Finland has invested financially, and with research and development, to make their forest industry into a thriving, sustainable bioeconomy. Maine leaders want to make a carbon-copy if you will.

It's not seen as a competition, Finnish and Maine leaders see it as an opportunity to grow together.

The Finland-Maine trade and study mission was scheduled to take place in June. COVID-19 changed the travel plans but it didn't stop the goal, focusing on 100% resource utilization from the forest industry.

"There was so much excitement around this trip that we didn’t want to cancel," Dana Eidsness, Director of the Maine North Atlantic Development Office at the Maine International Trade Center. "We had to be a little clever and come up with a way to move forward and the solution we came up with was to condense a week-long trade and study mission into two webinars and online business matchmaking.”

Currently, 37 Maine companies are signed up for the August 20 webinar. Eidsness says 35 have already expressed interest in the matchmaking component. This could mean an increase in exports for both the state and companies, new buyers or distributors, and partners.

It appears Finland is giving more than its taking, but government and industry over there see it as a way of solving global issues, and they want to be on the leading edge.

“We really see that this change towards bioeconomy is a global challenge,” said Heli Hyypiä the Trade and Economic Affairs Counselor at the Embassy of Finland in Washington D.C. "If we want to combat climate change, loss of biodiversity, declining natural resources, and we really do want to be at the forefront of that action then we need to develop sustainable bioeconomy that is based on renewable natural resources.”

One-fifth of the value of Finland's goods exports comes from the forest sector, which directly employs more than 62,000 people, according to Natural Resources Institute Finland. Hyypiä expects the number of jobs to grow by 100,000, to a total of 400,000, by 2025.

Finland's switch to becoming a new bioeconomy didn't happen overnight. It involved a collaborative effort between industry, economic partners, and academia, and then policymakers in government. It has transformed pulp and paper to renewable packaging materials, bioplastics, biofuels, sustainable building materials, like cross-laminated timber, medicine, even fiber-based textiles, according to Hyypiä. However, they do still produce pulp and paper.

Maine has started to lay the foundation towards a bioeconomy. Mills are being repurposed to make sustainable building materials and waste from the pulp process is already being converted into jet fuel, and other petroleum products, at the University of Maine.

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“I think this is one of the most exciting periods in Maine’s history," said Eidsness. "We are at a point where we are reinventing our heritage industries both in the forest and ocean sectors and we are being both sustainable and clever about it.”

As long as consumers continue to be increasingly environmentally conscious, there will be a need for products stemming from trees. 

“You can build with it, you can make pulp and paper from it, you can make packaging. But really anything that can be made from petroleum can be made from a tree,” Eidsness said.

The August 20 webinar is called Finland as a Model of Success for Maine’s Forest Economy and the August 25 webinar is titled Maine Reinvents Its Forest IndustryRegistration and matchmaking are free courtesy of Business Finland.