Looking beyond recycling

Recycled fiber producer Sustana Fiber emphasizes creating a truly circular economy, making it an innovator in the recovered paper and food packaging industries.

inside the sustana fiber de pere facility
Sustana Fiber's De Pere, Wisconsin, facility produces 100-percent-recycled paper.
Photo courtesy of Sustana Fiber

Sustana has recycling in its DNA, but the mission of the De Pere, Wisconsin-based company focuses on the bigger picture, keeping the sustainability of its operations at the forefront as it pushes toward a circular economy.

The company operates three business units, including a paper mill in Quebec and two fiber mills in De Pere and Lévis, Quebec. The company manufactures 100-percent-recycled fiber at its De Pere facility and up to 100-percent-recycled paper in Quebec.

Blackstone Tactical Opportunities, New York, purchased Sustana in 2021 from Miami-based investment group H.I.G. Capital. At the time of the acquisition, Blackstone Managing Director Andrea Serra said, “The increasing focus on environmental sustainability by businesses and consumers alike is one of Blackstone’s highest conviction investment themes.”

“The focus is all on recycled fiber,” says Renee Yardley, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Sustana.

Sustana processes nearly 2.2 million pounds of recycled material every day and approximately 750 million pounds per year. Its De Pere facility has a production capacity of 170,000 air-dried short tons per year, sourced primarily in the Midwest, while its Lévis facility has a production capacity of 110,000 air-dried short tons per year sourced from eastern Canada.

When it comes to growth, Yardley says Sustana is limited by its size, adding, “Those are smaller facilities in the fiber world.”

But its size hasn’t limited its innovation, and with strategic partnerships and a willingness to look beyond traditional feedstock, Sustana continues to push circularity forward in the pulp, paper and packaging industries.

Partners in innovation

Over the years, the industry has seen a shift from printing and writing paper to a greater focus on packaging. While that trend had been developing long before the coronavirus pandemic upended the market, that shift has only accelerated.

Sustana had sourced much of its material from office buildings and schools—“everything that was closed during the pandemic,” Yardley says—and in keeping with its passion for innovation, the company had to get a little creative to make up for the limited sorted office paper (SOP) supply.

The company, however, was ahead of the curve when it comes to container recycling and, more specifically, paper cups.

In 2018, Sustana partnered with Starbucks, Atlanta-based packaging producer WestRock and international packaging company Seda on its “Cup to Cup: Closing the Loop” initiative—a project aimed at demonstrating the viability of recycling and processing single-use paper cups to produce fiber to make new cups.

Sustana estimates 60 billion single-use paper coffee are landfilled in the United States every year, citing inconsistent collection systems to capture paper cups and insufficient resources at MRFs to extract the cups from the waste stream and the technology to remove the polyethylene (PE) liner from the cup to access the fiber.

The company invested in equipment to recycle the Starbucks cups at scale by separating the interior plastic liners, and according to Sustana, the partnership has successfully recycled more than 25 million Starbucks cups into new cups.

“The ultimate vision of the Starbucks-Sustana partnership is to provide a full, closed loop, zero-waste solution,” Sustana CEO Fabian de Armas said in a presentation on the partnership.

That ability to recycle paper containers became an increased part of Sustana’s mix during the pandemic because there was limited supply from commercial buildings, and the company backed the continued use of nontraditional fiber with the installation of a high-capacity shredder at its Lévis site.

The shredder, financially supported by Recyc-Quebec, improves the fiber recycling process for aseptic and gable top containers like milk and juice cartons and is the first multilayer carton operation in Quebec. It increased the site’s carton recycling capacity from 1,000 tons per year to 5,000 tons per year.

“It’s great fiber,” Yardley says, “but you’ve got to shred it down so it can work through your process.”

That capital addition was completed in 2021 and Yardley says Sustana continues to produce that fiber in keeping with its focus on innovation.

Sustana also has teamed up with Sonoco and Kellogg’s to determine recyclability of rigid paper containers with steel bottoms, like those manufactured for Kellogg’s food brands. Sonoco already had determined these containers could be recycled in the steel stream but wanted to increase recyclability within the paper stream. That’s when Sustana joined the trial, along with Colorado-based equipment and technology provider Amp Robotics.

“People would say, ‘You can’t do that,’” Yardley says of rigid paper container recycling. “We show them that it can be recycled.”

“The circular value chain is challenging, and the biggest challenge around it is logistics—getting all the products back to recycle them,” she adds. “It’s not an easy task to do that, so partnerships are key.”

Circular focus

Sustana’s EnviroLife, a 100-percent-recycled, sustainable fiber, received a letter of no objection from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2015, making it compliant with FDA standards for food-grade packaging, and Yardley says Sustana’s focus over the next several years will be in the food-grade packaging space, working with brand owners to improve the circularity of their products.

“There’s a lot of paper products that are used with direct food contact, so I think the food packaging industry is ripe for recycling because a lot of it doesn’t get recycled and it doesn’t include recycled content,” she says

Yardley says the brand owners she’s worked with are aware of the evolving benchmarks of including recycled content in consumer products and that those companies want to make sure they are hitting those thresholds. As recycling becomes more of a priority to consumers as well, Sustana continues to work with those brand owners to increase their recycling ability.

“People are concerned about climate change and what it seems consumers want to do is recycle, and so as the demand is there for increased recycling, the large brand owners want to look at how they can contribute to that,” Yardley says.

But the key to advancing any number of Sustana partnerships is education. It’s hard to drum up consumer support if most don’t understand the processes in place and the goals they’re working toward. "There are all sorts of things we have to look at,” she says. “We need to educate the consumers as we’re going forward and that we’re all going to have to be involved, from the brand owner to the recycler.”

“We’re not going to be able to do everything all at once,” she adds. “I think it’s important that we have more partnerships out there like Sonoco, like Starbucks, where we can demonstrate that this can be done and that we can do it at a certain level, then take it to the next level. [The average consumer doesn’t] understand all the logistics and all the steps that go into that process, so it’s definitely going to be the key to us moving forward and how we’re working.”

Sustana is planning what Yardley calls “a large investment” into its De Pere facility to further its commitment to a circular economy. She says the investment will allow the facility to produce dry fiber that can be shipped to regions like the West Coast or overseas, “allowing more companies the ability to put recycled content into their products.”

In the meantime, Sustana continues to look beyond recycling and is committed to ensuring the sustainability of its operations at all facilities, minimizing water usage, power usage and waste, and Yardley says the company always is looking for smarter ways to reduce its impact.

“It’s our DNA,” Yardley says. “It’s beyond recycling; it’s sustainability.”

Sustana hired Jeff Crawford last February as vice president of sustainability to make sure sustainability is embedded within its entire manufacturing process and to advance the group's leadership in providing sustainable recycled solutions to the paper and packaging industry.

“I think there’s a lot of brands out there that have the same mindset that we do in that we want to make the best use of the resources,” Yardley says. “I think there’s more room for recycled paper out there. … We’re a small mill in the fiber and paper industry, so we’re going to continue to find those like-minded consumers, and I think I see it growing over the next year, because in terms of this circular economy, that’s an easy way for brands to work on their emissions is to use the recycled paper.”

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