Pulp and paper an eco leader

Submitted by: Kellie Northwood 03/10/2014

Few industries can compete with the environmental performance of pulp and paper companies.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been finishing off my part of the judging for the international Pulp and Paper Industry (PPI) environmental awards that will be presented at a gala industry event in Brussels later this year. Perhaps the best statement that can come from the awards entries is that the industry is in very good hands.

There are some absolutely amazing projects and positive outcomes from a large range of environmental investments and activities around the world. It is hard to think of any other industry that could compete with the environmental performance of pulp and paper companies both large and small, in well developed economies and also in less wealthy nations. Many companies have truly identified that there is money to be saved by being efficient throughout the manufacturing process and beyond.

The usual focus on forestry underpins many projects where now wood fibre is not seen as a natural resource but a renewable crop. Wood fibre is seen as an asset of the business rather than trees and land that are exploited. Forest certification schemes play a major part of the industry’s environmental platform, these have grown significantly over the past decade. But more recently companies have been focusing on other important inputs, in particular fresh water.

The amount of effort in some cases to reduce the amount of water they use has been measurably astounding. In some cases water consumption is down 90 per cent over just a few years. Without doubt the industry leaders have been followed quickly by others around the world. I think this is a positive aspect of the industry that sees technologies quickly adopted around the world. Water purification systems have advanced in the industry significantly. Not only ensuring water that is returned to the natural environment is clean and pure, but also the pollutants that are filtered out are either reused in the pulp and paper making process or used as fuel for powering the production site.

Non fossil fuels are also big opportunities in the sector where in many cases pulp mills in particular are almost completely self sufficient in their energy requirements. This is being done by burning wood waste, mill waste and recapturing heat from the machines used on the site.

Many pulp and paper mills have embraced recycled fibre with a passion, making this the core of their business. Much of their production cycle is taken up in the collection processes which interesting mean the factory gates are longer the limits of the business. The operations reach out into the local community engaging with local governments and community groups to maximize the capture of paper fibre from the urban forests.

It is hard to think of another industry sector in the world that grows its own inputs and then draws most of its energy requirements from the waste from the grow resource and then produces a product that can be 100 per cent recycled back into the same product type. The quality of the award entries, even the ones that might not win the big accolades later this year, is that broad and deep but environmental credentials and activities of the pulp and paper industry is hardly being adequately communicated to the sectors key stakeholders. While the narrow attention of many groups has been on forestry, (which is important) the companies have also focused on a range of major issues, none more important than water. Without external pressure from customers and environmental groups the leading companies in the global industry have greatly reduced their use and pollution of perhaps out most precious natural resource, water.

Another striking point from the award entries was the geographic spread of environmental responsibility. Where in the past the European companies would dominate the leadership ranks now there are firms in other parts of the world that are achieving tremendous results, Indian firms stand out as ones that have embraced local critical ecological issues and done great things.

The other significant point that is also covered in the awards each year is employee safety. As an intensive manufacturing process the sector worker injuries is always a potential concerns. Many of the companies in the sector have paid a tremendous amount of attention to this issue and made some excellent progress. In many cases a pulp and paper mill exists in a local community environment which tends to mean workers have a long term association, often over generations. Therefore when firms in the sector speak of caring for their family there is genuineness in the firm’s commitment. The trans-generational nature of the global pulp and paper industry does make it unique and it cannot be overestimated as an important industry characteristic.

Reflecting on the award entries this year it is easy for me to see how it stands along in its environmental commitment and performance. The singular attention on forestry hardly begins to explain adequately just how good the global pulp and paper industry has been, particularly over the past two decades.

This Feature appeared in the September 2014 issue of ProPrint Magazine