An article by Christopher F. Schuetze, The New York Times.
Three times a week, tanker trucks make an hourlong journey from a baby-food factory in Nunspeet, in the central Netherlands, to a paper mill in the southeastern city of Roermond.
The trucks carry 90 cubic meters, or about 24,000 gallons, a week of phosphate produced as a waste byproduct at the baby-food factory, to be fed to bacteria in an anaerobic fermentation tank at the mill.
One person’s trash can be another’s treasure. “They had a lot of expenses to get rid of it, and we had expense to get it, so we are both happy,” said Mark Nabuurs, the manager of innovation and development at the Roermond plant.
Mr. Nabuurs and other executives at Roermond Papier, a unit of the Smurfit Kappa packaging company, based in Dublin, cite the phosphate deal as an example of the company’s commitment to the idea of a circular economy.
“The linear economy is at an end. I really believe it is over,” said Jo Cox, the general manager of the Roermond plant which, in an industry once associated with water pollution and deforestation, has won several environmental awards over the years.
The mill makes brown packing paper exclusively from recycled and alternative fibers, and it has made changes to its production processes, its supply chain and its waste disposal practices to reduce its environmental footprint.
It currently produces less than a kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of solid waste for every metric ton of paper that it makes, converting combustible waste into fuel pellets that it sells as a byproduct to other industries. It uses natural gas and biogas to generate power and steam.
It uses just 2.7 liters, or 0.7 gallons, of water to produce a kilogram of paper, less than 2 percent of the volume needed to produce the same amount in a conventional mill: The water, drawn from a nearby river, is recycled several times, and cleaned by organic processes before being returned to its original source.
“I’m like a priest, I’m always talking about the religion of the circular economy,” said Mr. Cox.
To make the mill’s processes circular, the management and innovation team has expended much effort looking for alternative sources for raw materials and new — preferably profitable — uses for what would have once been waste.
With the backing of Smurfit Kappa, a commitment to the circular economy has been built into its operating mandate since 2009, Mr. Cox said, formalizing a more than decade-long campaign to eliminate waste and use more recycled materials.
While much of the impetus for this campaign has come from the need to satisfy its increasingly environmentally conscious customers, Mr. Cox said, sustainability has also paid off financially.
“There’s nothing wrong with making money,” he said.
Globally, the paper industry is having difficulties doing just that. As businesses and bureaucracies increasingly go digital, paper mills — especially those making white writing paper — are feeling the pinch, said Thad Maloney, a professor in the department of forest products technology at Aalto University in Finland, and an expert in pulp and paper: “Mills have to become more competitive by becoming more efficient.”
Paper mills that produce coarse brown paper for packaging are also more likely to rely on recycled paper for feedstock — something the Roermond mill has been doing since the 1970s. They have the advantage, moreover, of not having to go through bleaching and extensive pulping processes that are costly and potentially an environmental hazard.
“Broadly speaking, if what you are doing is recycling fiber into something that is just packing paper, you are ahead,” said Paul Johnston, who runs the Greenpeace laboratories at the University of Exeter in Britain.
At the Roermond mill, bales of neatly stacked recovered paper fill several outside lots. The mill’s records show that it uses more than a million bales, or about 650,000 tons, a year.
Located in a heavily industrialized region straddling the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, the mill has the advantage that used paper is plentiful and cheap. The region has high rates of paper use and recycling; the recycling rate in the Netherlands is as high as 80 percent.
In this respect, at least, …
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