Wholly Sustainable

A holistic approach to sustainability drives Sappi Fine Paper North America.

For many companies, sustainability extends beyond using recycled content and encouraging the recycling of their products at the end of their lives. Boston-based Sappi Fine Paper North America is one such company. According to the company’s website, its sustainability goals are divided into three areas—people, planet and prosperity. Examples of a goal from each of these categories include:

  • Enhancing employees’ job performance and managerial skills by offering training and education at an average rate of 75 hours per employee annually;
  • Reducing fiber and papermaking raw material waste by 10 percent; and
  • Achieving or exceeding an annual 12 percent return on net assets for Sappi Fine Paper North America.

A Balanced Approach

In working toward its sustainability goals, Sappi, a manufacturer of coated fine and release papers and market pulp, has found it necessary to balance the factors associated with using recycled fiber in its coated premium printing papers, says Laura M. Thompson, director of technical marketing and sustainable development. “Sustainability is a core part of our overall strategy,” she says. “It’s not a program of the month. It is integral to our business and involves making good business decisions that are good for the environment and good for our stakeholders.”

While Sappi advocates for paper recovery and recycling, Thompson says, “We share a unique perspective in trying to educate paper buyers about some of the trade-offs for using recycled fiber in coated premium printing papers. Once paper has been recovered, it is important to put the fiber to its best use, giving consideration for both economic and environmental impacts. Ultimately, recycled fiber should be used in products where it displaces a higher manufacturing footprint.” This best use is often in packaging grades, she says, because less processing is required and higher yield is achieved.

Sappi purchases deinked pulp (DIP), which is primarily made from postconsumer sources, such as sorted office paper (SOP) and white ledger. “For fiscal year 2012, Sappi Fine Paper North America sold approximately 1.4 million tons of paper and pulp products,” Thompson says. “In terms of yearly fiber consumption in tons, during fiscal year 2012, we used 40,050 air-dried short tons of deinked pulp, which is the combined total for our Somerset and Cloquet facilities.” Therefore, DIP accounted for nearly 4 percent of the company’s raw material in 2012.

Put Your eQ to the Test

Volume 5 of “eQ Journal,” a Sappi Fine Paper North America publication designed to help the company’s customers increase their environmental knowledge, will be released this spring. This issue will cover recycling and the best use of recycled content in paper manufacturing, providing insight into the paper making process, according to Laura M. Thompson, director of technical marketing and sustainable development at Sappi. The issue, as well as Sappi’s “2012 Sustainability Report,” can be accessed at www.na.sappi.com/eQ/journals.html.  

Thompson’s blog, the “Environmental Quotient,” tackles sustainability issues as well and can be accessed at http://eq.tumblr.com.

She says Sappi has found that using DIP or recycled fiber in its paper production actually increases the carbon footprint of its products. “We have been very transparent about this issue,” Thompson says, “and are using life-cycle analysis to help bring facts and science to the fore of this debate in an effort to educate stakeholders about the ‘best use’ of recycled fiber.”

Thompson adds that the company was happy to see the recently revised Federal Trade Commission Green Guides, which states, “Claiming ‘green, made with recycled content’ may be deceptive if the environmental costs of using recycled content outweigh the environmental benefits of using it.”

Incorporating recycled content in its products also can come at a financial cost for Sappi, according to Thompson. “Many of our customers think products with recycled fiber ought to be less expensive than products made with 100-percent-virgin fiber. However, the cost of recycled fiber continues to exceed the cost of manufacturing virgin fiber at our integrated mills and is among the most expensive market pulps we purchase.”

Sappi’s consumption of DIP is driven by customer preference. But Thompson says the company’s customers are shifting away from demanding recycled content in printing and writing paper and instead specifying certified forest fiber. She adds that Sappi’s clients are taking a more holistic view toward the manufacturing footprint of their suppliers. “This is a good thing and demonstrates that customers are paying attention to both the economic and environmental benefits when choosing their paper,” Thompson says.

“Recycling typically uses less energy than raw material pulping. However, the production of recycled fiber still consumes energy, much of which is based on fossil fuels,” she continues. “When looking at emissions data for virgin pulp made at integrated kraft (free sheet) mills, the carbon footprint of virgin fiber can be significantly lower because kraft mills have high levels of renewable energy (in the form of black liquor, a wood byproduct from pulp making that paper mills burn to generate electricity).” Thompson adds, “Generally speaking, improving profitability and creating a more sustainable future are directly entwined.”

A closer look at Sappi Fine Paper North America’s operations offers additional insight into the company’s position on the use of recycled fiber.

Areas of Expertise
Sappi Fine Paper North America traces its roots back to 1854 and the S.D. Warren Co., owner and operator of a Westbrook, Maine, paper mill that was acquired by the company in 1995. Sappi Fine Paper North America is a subsidiary of Sappi Ltd., headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa. Sappi Ltd. employs more than 14,000 people and has manufacturing operations on three continents in seven countries.

“Our company is founded on a legacy of innovation and quality,” Thompson says, pointing to a number of “firsts” Sappi has achieved in coating and specialty mill technology. “We have a solid track record of pioneering industry-first innovations, such as the first paper coated and calendered on two sides and the first dull coated paper, among many others.”

Sappi is the third-largest seller of hardwood pulp in North America, Thompson says, with three mills in the Northeast and North-Central United States.

Sappi’s Somerset mill in Skowhegan, Maine, produces papers such as Somerset, Opus and Flo used primarily for high-end magazines, books and catalogs, Thompson says. It also manufactures coated free-sheet graphic paper, grease-proof packaging paper and bleached chemical pulp.

The Westbrook mill produces specialty release papers and films used in synthetic fabrics in the automotive, fashion and engineering films industries, including the Ultracast brand. “Sappi’s release papers provide the surface aesthetics for synthetic fabrics used in footwear, clothing, upholstery and accessories, as well as the textures for decorative laminates found in kitchens, baths, flooring and other decorative surfaces,” Thompson says.

Sappi’s Cloquet mill in Cloquet, Minn., specializes in coated free sheet graphic paper and bleached chemical pulp. “[The] Cloquet mill produces some of our most requested coated fine papers, including McCoy, Opus and Flo,” she adds.

The company operates 17 sales sites in the U.S., a research facility in Westbrook, a service center in South Portland, Maine, and a sheeting facility in Allentown, Pa., employing 2,280 people total.

Thompson says Sappi has three business units: coated fine papers, release papers and pulp. However, Sappi will be transitioning from kraft pulp at its Cloquet mill to specialized cellulose, also known as dissolving pulp, in May 2013, she adds.

Thompson says Sappi is excited about this transition, which will allow the company to supply the textile industry with specialized cellulose that will be converted into viscose fibers, which offers considerable growth potential. “We are excited about the growth in those markets and that is why we are doing this major conversion,” she says. Thompson adds that by transitioning to specialized cellulose, Sappi will be able to produce a product with more added value than kraft pulp, which also offers higher margins.

Sappi is investing $170 million in its Cloquet mill to make the transition to produce cellulose. “The plans include modification to the mill’s woodyard, digesters, bleaching, washing, screening and chemical recovery system,” Thompson says. “As part of Sappi’s ongoing commitment to the coated paper business, the mill’s paper machines and stock preparation areas are also being modified to better handle more purchased (dry) fiber.”

Toward a Sustainable Future

“Now more than ever, we are making strategic decisions to move into areas of greater opportunity and to focus on long-term, sustainable growth,” Thompson says. “Sappi Ltd. is currently the largest global producer of specialized cellulose, and with the major $170 million investment in our Cloquet mill conversion to be completed in 2013, we expect to produce an additional 330,000 metric tons total per year.”

She adds that the company recently invested $13 million to rebuild one of the machines at its Somerset plant and approved a $2.5 million project to upgrade the No. 20 coater for the Classics release line at its Westbrook plant.

“These capital projects will allow for increased overall returns of our North American region by providing opportunities for further reinvestment in our coated, release and specialized cellulose business,” Thompson says.

Wider industry initiatives also have Thompson excited about the future of the paper industry.

“I am excited about the pending Paper Check-Off program, which is an industry-wide promotion for the forest products industry proposed by the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture),” she says. “The collaborative marketing campaign will help to remind people about many of the beneficial uses of paper as well as the strong sustainability positions within our industry.”

In terms of ongoing challenges to the paper industry, she mentions increasing recovery in segments such as cartons or polycoated papers. “While they are approaching the industry goal of 70 percent recovery,” Thompson says, “paper is still the major contributor to the overall volume of landfill waste. It will take a portfolio of solutions to minimize materials sent to landfill, ranging from composting of towel and food-service grades to incineration with energy recovery for other difficult-to-recycle grades.”

Thompson also says she sees potential for extended producer responsibility goals, which she describes as “arguably unjustified,” to burden paper recovery systems. She adds, “Paper has the highest recovery rates of any basic material, and it would be beneficial to see voluntary market-based solutions emerge rather than resort to EPR.”

In terms of sustainably incorporated recycled content into paper production, Thompson says this hinges on using the material in the right locations and in the right grades. “As an industry, most recovered paper is rightfully used as a raw material in packaging grades, such as carton board and paper board, because the manufacturing of these grades does not typically involve deinking and/or achieves a more cost-effective use of recycled fiber at a higher yield and does not typically involve deinking and/or bleaching.”


The author is managing editor of Recycling Today and can be reached at dtoto@gie.net.

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