Innovative Manufacturing Practices for an Environmentally Conscious World

Heather Pelletier, Director of Research and Development at Sappi North America

While it may surprise some, the inherent sustainability of the paper and packaging manufacturing industry has led to some of the most innovative and environmentally conscious practices. As an industry dependent on natural resources, like trees and water, the importance of minimizing its environmental footprint has evolved from a risk mitigation measure to an opportunity driver, especially in light of climate change and the need to reduce the use of carbon-based fuels and products. New ways of sourcing and managing resources sustainably are being explored at every stage of production: from exploring new biofuel resources, to the processing of the wood pulp and fiber, to what happens with byproducts. Below are several sustainable practices that those in the business of paper and packaging manufacturing should employ to minimize their environmental impact.

Promote Forest Stewardship & Responsibly Managed Forests

For paper and packaging manufacturers, sustainable practices start with responsible stewardship of the forests and using every part of the tree. A tree is comprised of different fibers and the more we learn about the properties of these fibers the more we can imagine what can be done with them. These fibers include cellulose, lignin, and hemicellulose. Not only are they essential ingredients for pulp and paper products, but they can be a carbon neutral, renewable source of energy to power mills instead of fossil fuels. That is why sustainably managed forests is so very important – every fiber counts.

Many manufacturers in the U.S. do not directly own or manage forestlands and are thus fully dependent on outside suppliers for wood fiber. Utilizing third-party certification programs helps to assure manufacturers and customers that forest management and logging operations adhere to responsible forestry practices, including prompt regeneration and reforestation. However, only about 11 percent of the world’s forests are certified, so manufacturers should make sure they are using responsibly sourced wood by abiding by programs like the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) Controlled Wood and the Sustainable Forest Initiative® (SFI®) Fiber Sourcing Standards.

These programs require chain-of-custody certified manufacturers to implement rigorous tracing procedures and due diligence systems to demonstrate that all non-certified wood fiber in their supply chain was harvested legally and avoids controversial sources. The SFI Fiber Sourcing Standard also requires evidence that all wood fiber originates from responsibly managed forests and was procured by trained loggers in adherence to best management practices. SFI-certified companies must support landowner outreach and education efforts and investment in forest research for the greater good and landscape-scale conservation outcomes. This is one way to make sure a business is making wise purchasing decisions that reflect sustainability principles.

Recycle; Repurpose; Reduce Waste & Inefficiency

Incorporating recycled content and recovered fiber into paper products is one way that manufacturers may potentially reduce their environmental impact – as long as they’re not using more energy in the process. The material must be sourced responsibly, and the full environmental impacts of manufacturing and processing the material must be considered to ensure it is being put to its most efficient use.

Recovered fiber, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), includes both post-consumer fibers (paper, paperboard and fibrous products that have been used by consumers and recycled) and post-industrial fibers (scrap materials leftover and reclaimed from industrial uses that have never reached consumers), but the level of manufacturing and processing needed for each type can vary. Paper is not monolithic; certain paper grades and even certain mills are better suited for using recycled fiber than others. There are vast differences between processing recycled fiber for recycled packaging applications versus doing so for premium papers. It is important that manufactures put recycled fiber to its best use and ensure the fiber is used where it makes the most economical and environmental sense.

Byproducts of manufacturing can be put to practical use as well, such as boiler ash from burning wood for fuel. Rather than simply adding tons of ash into a landfill, where it decomposes and produces methane, a greenhouse gas with a higher global warming potential than CO2, that ash can be repurposed into a fertilizer or soil amendment. By distributing it over low pH soil along with lime mud byproducts, it can help farmers grow their crops.

Every part of the tree can and should be utilized whenever possible. Not only do manufacturers reduce their environmental impact and become a force for good in preserving the ecosystems around them – it also makes good business sense.

Adopt a Circular Economy Model

Circular economy models place an emphasis on restoration and regeneration. Pulping involves separating the fiber in wood from the lignin, a gluey organic polymer found in plants and wood. The fiber is used to make paper, but the lignin has many other uses that manufacturers can take advantage of. It can replace fossil fuels as an energy source, along with hemicellulose, cellulose fibers and leftover wood chips. Lignin is also an excellent binding and dispersing agent and can be utilized as a component of biodegradable plastic, plywood, pastes and glues, dust suppressants, soil stabilizers, and cement and asphalt products.

This circular process requires a change in perspective; assessing the full life cycle of your product, from the original raw materials used to final disposition of the product at the end of its useful life, perhaps ready for another use as part of a different product altogether. Making a concerted effort to efficiently manage the materials you use, and recycle them whenever possible, will be a benefit to the surrounding environment and community. And, not only is this clearly more beneficial to the ecosystem but repurposing waste and generating your own fuel sources can be profit-saving. Sustainable solutions are good for the environment, society and your business.

All of the above practices taken together form a holistic view of sustainable paper and packaging production that manufacturers should strive for. It starts with the materials you use; continues in how you utilize those materials with traditional and innovative manufacturing practices; and comes full circle in how you reinvest back in the environment. It is possible to utilize renewable energy for a variety of mill sizes, to use almost every part of the trees you harvest, and to create paper products that are high-quality and sustainable. Companies need to have a long-term vision of success in order to have a long and profitable future.

About the Author

Heather Pelletier is the director of brand management at Sappi North America. She has been with Sappi for over thirty years, with expertise in engineering and operations as well as product development and marketing. She is now responsible for managing Sappi’s North American packaging brands and product improvements, in concert with the sales and marketing, manufacturing, and R&D divisions.

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