Sustainable packaging producer DS Smith built a recycled corrugated medium mill in Reading, Pennsylvania, in the 1990s—one of two of the company’s U.S. mills. With the completion of a recycling facility located alongside the paper mill and 1 mile from its packaging plant, the mill has become part of what the company calls its “circular economy trifecta.”
DS Smith, which is headquartered in London and has North American operations based in Atlanta, operates 15 manufacturing, paper and recycling facilities in the United States, employing more than 2,000 people. But its Reading facilities and their circular approach to paper production are a model for the company’s operational expansion in North America.
It’s a model that provided a level of security, too, as the recycling facility opened during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 when the question of where a mill might source material from was of great concern.
“There’s a stability in having that model in place so there’s not a lot of guesswork,” says Toby Earnest, director of recycling – North America at DS Smith. “We saw recyclers that had been in business for a long time that we had relationships with [and] some of those businesses closed down.”
He adds, “Having that circularity, that trifecta that we talk about, from a strategic standpoint, it allowed us to have that captive material that we were looking for, and we didn’t have to search quite as much on the market and in a very, very unpredictable, very volatile market at the time.”
The Reading paper mill consumes approximately 20,000 tons per month of mostly old corrugated containers (OCC) and some double-lined kraft, or DLK. Most of that material is sourced directly from the company’s neighboring recycling plant but also comes from commercial, industrial and retail sources as well as from material recovery facilities within the region. Earnest says most of the material is located within 102 miles of the Reading complex.
He says the mill’s operations aren’t necessarily unique when compared with other paper mills but adds that the facility uses what he calls “very good cleaning technology” on the front end to make sure the corrugated medium sheet it produces is as clean as possible. “We try to make in our recycling plant the cleanest recycled material we can bring through there because that helps us with the strength [and] helps us with the appearance of the sheet.”
Sourcing from its own recycling facility—a facility that prioritizes cleanliness in all aspects—gives DS Smith the level of quality control it strives for when it comes to the recovered fiber that the paper mill is consuming. “We want to have control over it,” Earnest says of the recovered fiber supply. “We want to make sure we bring in the cleanest material that we can with the highest quality yield combination that we can for the mill because that’s taking out waste on the front end. You’re removing that waste on the front end of the system, so you’re sending as little as possible to landfills.”
Last year, the Reading paper mill—which has 75 employees—processed approximately 240,000 tons of recovered fiber to be converted into paper rolls for DS Smith’s box plant, which the company says is the equivalent carbon reduction of removing 169,000 passenger vehicles off the road or avoiding the consumption of more than 89 million gallons of gasoline.
Once the OCC has been sorted and sent to the mill, the process begins to convert the recovered fiber into recycled paper, which is stored in large rolls and delivered to the packaging facility. That facility also receives liner from DS Smith’s other U.S. paper mill in Riceboro, Georgia.
Earnest says outputs from the Reading box plant vary from month to month, but the company tries to limit the amount of waste generated at its packaging facilities. “We design our production process to eliminate as much scrap as possible, which we think is a key differentiator,” Earnest says.
He says the Reading mill sells corrugated medium “to many different customers, including our own internal plants as well as some independents.’ Earnest adds, “[A lot of] that medium goes to the Reading box plant, where we also have a PackRight center … [where] we work with our customers to design packaging because we feel like a lot of the waste that comes in packaging is in the design portion.”
‘Circular economy trifecta’
The combination of DS Smith’s recycling facility, paper mill and box plant co-located within a mile of each other is, according to the company, a demonstration of its commitment to accelerating the transition to a circular economy. “The goal is to be sustainable,” Earnest says.
It’s a model that first was deployed in DS Smith’s European facilities, where its 14-day box-to-box process was developed. The packaging is sold, then returns to DS Smith’s facilities via recycling before being processed at the mills and rolled into reels weighing up to 6 tons. The reels are then cut down and shipped to the company’s packaging plants where the process begins again—taking two weeks to complete.
“Right off the bat, you’ve got a nice carbon footprint,” Earnest says of this model. “You’re not sourcing from far away to bring in material like some of the mills have to.
“Deploying that model, having the control, having the ability to service the customer from our own mill to our packaging facility to their customer [and back] to our recycling plant [creates] that circularity. … We want to recycle everything—every possible piece that we can. And we do that by bringing in this stuff in a recycling plant but also [by]sourcing the proper materials as well.”
DS Smith has pledged that by 2030, it will use fiber-based packaging and recycling efforts to replace problem plastics, reduce customer carbon and eliminate consumer packaging waste—all adding to the company’s mission: “Redefining packaging for a changing world.”
It’s proved to be a sustainable business model as the company seeks continued growth opportunities in the U.S. with the success of the Reading complex.
“We’re promoting the circular design metric tool so that when the customer comes to us and they have packaging and they want to collaborate with us on that package, we can give them a score of how sustainable that packaging is before it’s even produced,” Earnest says.
He adds, “As DS Smith grows, I think you’ll see that similar type footprint where we want to grow out the packaging side of the business and in turn will grow the other aspects of the business as well.”