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UBC professor Dr. Feng Jiang holds a sample of biodegradable foam. UBC and Wet’suwet’en First Nation will collaborate to build a pilot plant to make the new packaging foam from wood waste.Lou Bosshart/Handout

University of British Columbia researchers and the Wet’suwet’en First Nation have agreed to share intellectual property in a fledgling partnership to develop a biodegradable packing foam.

The approach is in keeping with UBC’s broader goals related to First Nations partnerships, said UBC forestry researcher Dr. Feng Jiang.

“We want to use this as an example to showcase that a First Nation can contribute significantly to the project,” Dr. Jiang said, adding that Indigenous people’s role in research has often been minimized or overlooked.

“I want to make sure that we are not only using their name and a relationship to guide this project, but that they will be [part of] any benefits,” he added.

Through the partnership, announced Monday, Dr. Jiang and his colleagues plan to work with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, located near Burns Lake, B.C., to build a pilot plant to manufacture biodegradable packing foam from wood waste.

Dr. Jiang, an assistant professor in UBC’s faculty of forestry and the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Functional Biomaterials, has been working on a “biofoam” for several years.

The Wet’suwet’en First Nation, meanwhile, over the past few decades has seen area forests decimated by wildfires and mountain pine beetle infestation. It is looking for ways to make better use of the wood that’s left, including “slash piles” left over from logging operations.

The community was also traumatized by a 2012 explosion and fire at the Babine Forest Products sawmill, which killed two workers and injured 20 others.

The loss of jobs from that disaster, as well as projected harvesting declines in the area, made it necessary to look for alternatives, said Reg Ogen, president and chief executive officer of Wet’suwet’en First Nation’s Yinka Dene Economic Development Partnership.

“We needed a way to utilize the fibre that was left in the bush,” Mr. Ogen said.

“I think there is a great opportunity to work with industry and government to create opportunities to do something different.”

Dr. Jiang met Mr. Ogen in 2019 at a forestry workshop and struck up a working relationship, with the Yinka Dene Economic Development Partnership lining up some grants and providing raw materials, and Dr. Jiang and his team testing formulations in his lab.

He likens the manufacturing process to making a smoothie and says it requires little heat and relatively few chemicals.

The partnership is in its early stages, with details – including ownership stakes if a product goes to market – still to be determined.

The partners are talking to the provincial government about potential funding for a pilot plant, Dr. Jiang said.

Originally, the partners thought of building a test site on Wet’suwet’en First Nation. They’re now leaning toward a facility in the Lower Mainland because it would be easier for potential customers and investors to visit, Dr. Jiang said.

For Mr. Ogen, the partnership opens a door for his community to be part of development it might not otherwise have access to, and that could hold promise for other forestry-dependent communities.

“We hope we can create something that not only us as a Wet’suwet’en people, but British Columbia and Canada can also be involved,” he said.

“What we want to do is make sure that we’re in the driver’s seat and not going to be hip-checked out of the way by the big corporations to make this happen.”

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