Eucalyptus Trees Abound But A Shortage Of Face Masks

8th April 2020

The ongoing Corona virus pandemic and a desperate scramble to procure personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline medical staff is leaving many countries exposed and is putting lives at risk.

Australia is a leading exporter of eucalyptus wood fibre which can be a major component of face masks, but they cannot be produced locally because we do not have the required wood pulp processing capacity.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently called on governments and industry to increase manufacturing by 40 per cent to meet rising global demand. In the US, more than 90 per cent of face masks sold are produced overseas and as of late major shortages are being experienced across the country. Other examples of supply problems include a large shipment of masks bound for Switzerland from Germany was blocked by the German government, which had unilaterally banned most exports of protective medical equipment on March 4th. Reportedly Italy, the worst-hit country in Europe, received 800 000 face masks from South Africa, but it still needs at least 10 million more. The WHO estimates that 89 million medical masks will be required every month during this pandemic hence the need for a 40 per cent step up in manufacturing. Australia also faces a shortage of masks and the ABC reported that an Adelaide-based fast food packaging company has been tasked with producing 145 million masks for frontline health staff across Australia, while Flinders Medical Centre will trial the use of special vending machines containing PPE for nurses and doctors.

There are many reports that companies and countries will re-think their supply chain strategies and indeed exposure to risk in the aftermath of the Corona virus pandemic. Self-sufficiency in the manufacturing of PPE must be considered. Australia has a world class healthcare system and medical research capability. We have the “ultimate renewable” raw material to potentially manufacture high-end wood-based protective medical equipment in Australia based on cutting-edge research. Our reputation for selling safe, clean and high-quality food can be leveraged to include the export of high-quality protective personal and related medical equipment. New innovative products and projects will create sustainable jobs. With the right vision, plan and leadership we can foster value-creating synergies between our well established medical and forestry sectors.

There are different types of face masks, but the common surgical mask typically consists of three layers, the outer layers made from nonwoven textile or polypropylene while the middle layer consists of a filter material.  A study[1] in the Journal of Academia and Industrial Research found that nonwoven fabric-based face masks far outperformed other materials against a number of key criteria. Nonwoven fabric can be produced from dissolving pulp. Dissolving pulp differs from normal paper grade bleached kraft pulp insomuch that both the lignin and most of the hemicellulose are removed from the wood during the pulping process leaving almost pure cellulose. The most common raw material for dissolving pulp manufacturing is eucalyptus wood, grown in Australian plantations and forests in abundance. Australia exports about 5 million bone dry metric tonnes (BDMt) of eucalyptus wood chips annually to mainly China and Japan for hardwood pulp manufacturing. Australia is net importer of pulp, paper and other wood products to the value of AUD2.1 billion per annum.

Australia does not have dissolving pulp mills unlike other regional countries such as South Africa, Indonesia, China, Japan and Thailand. Australian Paper is the only local hardwood pulp mill manufacturing packaging, copy paper and other related products. The manufacturing of dissolving pulp requires minor further mill investments to pre-hydrolyze the pulp before cooking. As an example, one mill in Thailand recently modified their paper grade pulp line to dissolving pulp production at a reported cost of USD6 million. That’s about USD35 per annual ton of production capacity. Past plans to develop new bleached kraft pulping capacity in Australia have not proceeded. Dissolving pulp mills are typically smaller in size (capacity) compared to paper grade pulp mills.

Dissolving pulp can also be processed into an array of other medical related products, for example nonwoven textile based protective clothes, gowns, drapes, caps, dressings, filters, single use hospital bed sheets, cosmetic face masks and rayon.

For further insights contact Margules Groome.

[1] Chellamani, K.P. et al Surgical Face Masks: Manufacturing Methods and Classification, Journal of Academia and Industrial Research Vol. 2, Issue 6 Nov 2013