Fibre, energy, water: from paper chain to closed loop

Sensemaking / Fibre, energy, water: from paper chain to closed loop

Roger East looks beyond the old hierarchy of high and low grades of paper as the industry eyes up the circular economy.

By Roger East / 16 Apr 2015

For impressive numbers on recycling, take a quick look at paper. Headline industry stat: a 72% recycling rate in Europe. Latest proposed EU target: zero paper waste to landfill by 2020. But a circular economy means more than that. Beyond the pulp itself, energy and water use must be part of the loop. Even business relationships will need reworking: the linear chain of material supplier – manufacturer – consumer – waste manager becomes a continuous cycle of give and take.

For inspiring progress on this, and intriguing problems too, take another look at paper. An old-fashioned rule of thumb was that top quality paper needed most virgin fibre (from wood pulp), while further down the quality chain you could use recycled fibre sources. Mills that make packaging sat at the bottom of this hierarchy, usually happy to use recycled fibre where it was available.

Julian Long at Arjowiggins Graphic sees the circular economy in terms of industry-wide and even cross-sector symbiosis. As specialists in graphic paper, his business is at the top end of the old-fashioned recycling hierarchy, except that his thinking is far from linear. As he explains it, the disruption of the linear paper chain was once driven largely by newsprint recycling. Then process innovation progressively cut the need for virgin fibre – first for ‘natural-look’ graphic paper, then for the high white variety. “By being selective with the waste we take in”, he says, “we can ensure our products are at least as good as those using virgin fibre. That is where we have really moved things on.”

Key to this is Greenfield Mill: Arjowiggins’ French de-inking facility, unique in Europe for its ability to turn recovered paper into high white fibre. Long talks of this recovery as a way of nourishing the ‘fibre bank’ on which paper making draws. Moreover, Greenfield’s output is not solely for his company’s use. “It’s one of our missions to encourage greater use of recycled paper industry-wide. It’s important that there are other people out their banging the same drum as we are.”

Maximising local opportunities is also important, says Long. Half of Greenfield’s production is used to supply paper fibre within a 250km area, reducing transport emissions. It’s no accident that Greenfield is sited near Paris, where used office paper is plentiful. There’s also a social economy dimension: part of the waste paper it buys from offices in France is collected and sorted by companies employing people with special needs – helping ex-prisoners, for example, return to work. One implication is that Arjowiggins has gradually more stake in partnerships with these paper collectors. In addition the solid residue is not wasted as 65% of the de-inking sludge from Greenfield is used to make fertilizer for agricultural use and 35% is used in the production of cement and building bricks for the construction industry.

Arjowiggins’ sister company Antalis, which distributes some of the products, is more at the sharp end of educating customers’ perceptions, actively promoting the environmental benefits of recycled papers manufactured in a closed-loop using waste paper Arjwiggins Graphic recover from the UK. Antalis call it ‘Full Cycle’, which is a certification that verifies the recycled paper was actually made in the closed-loop process. Paper, however, is still seen (and sold) as a ‘consumable’. Such perceptions can change, as carpet manufacturer Interface has shown with its “product to service” shift for carpets. Is the next step is for users to start thinking of renting the paper they use, and footing the bill for its subsequent refurbishment?

Innovators are now even finding value even in residual waste from recycling, which they’d previously send off to landfill or burn: the contaminants they remove, like cellophane and paper ribbons, known as “pulper”, and the sludge left after manufacturing. In Tuscany, the Eco-Pulplast project will turn pulper into second-life plastic to make pallets for local paper mills. Dutch mill Roermond Papier makes fuel pellets from anything combustible, and biogas by fermenting its sludge – adding phosphate “waste” from a nearby baby food factory. Veolia’s south London waste management facility will separate out non-recyclable cardboard fibre and send it for reprocessing into a new alternative feedstock for making insulation and fibreboards.

Roger East is a freelance writer and editor specialising in sustainability and the environment. 

Arjowiggins Graphic is a partner of the Futures Centre.

Image credit: Eric Gjerde / Flickr

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