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Changing the metrics of green Part II

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Changing the metrics of green Part II

June 29, 2011 - 01:24
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BRUSSELS, June 29, 2011 (RISI) -Shipping recovered paper overseas from the US may be significantly reducing the benefits of recycling. With recovery rates at an all-time high, industry and environmental groups alike are starting to change their focus from collection efforts to improving the use of recovered paper. Read Part Ihere.

In terms of carbon footprint, the reaction of customers has surprised Steve Silver, president and CEO of recycled paper producer FutureMark Paper in Alsip, IL. "When we bought the mill, Myllykoski had done an excellent job starting the process on how to measure our environmental impact. Our assumption was that customers would ask about it all the time, so we were setting up an unassailable system for carbon footprint - one that could not be questioned. But, we found that even though we've had dozens of customers tour the mill, no one wanted to go through our carbon footprint assessment or a life cycle analysis."

This was unexpected. Silver concludes that if a mill shows customers that it uses recovered paper, then they immediately accept that the mill is "green". Another issue that has arisen recently is the pre- versus post-consumer question. This was even brought up at the recent TAPPI PaperCon meeting. For example, why should a purchasedTimemagazine, which is considered post-consumer material, be considered more environmentally worthy of recycling than the unsold copies left at the newsstand, which is classified as pre-consumer in the US?

Glen Johnson, manager of technical services at FutureMark Paper, says the pre- and post-consumer distinction was more significant 20 years ago, when NGOs were trying to increase collection of post consumer waste.

"Pre-consumer is one of the core issues of the changing metrics in recycling," says Johnson, who has worked in recycled paper for more than 30 years. "Fifteen years ago, the objective was to increase recyclables by capturing more PCW. Now, we are close to maximizing collectibles. The objective now is to optimize reuse, and in this scenario, pre- is as valuable as post-. In fact, it is more efficient to collect and process the pre-consumer material because it has fewer contaminants. That's why the FSC has resolved to put pre- and post-consumer waste on an equal footing in calculations of certified output. In terms of impact, we think the emphasis should be on total recycled content."

Matt Nightingale, FutureMark's newly appointed director of business development, believes paper buyers are also pushing for simplification in environmental impact assessments. "The carbon footprint measure is all good work, but there are so many different scopes - power, water, sub-contractors - it becomes very confusing and hard to explain." This led Nightingale to bring up the issue of buying carbon offsets, which can further add to confusion among the public. Silver likened the purchase of offsets to the "papal dispensations" available in the Middle Ages, when you could pay cash for your sins and be forgiven.

Johnson notes, "When buyers choose environmental paper, they do so because they want to do the right thing. Unfortunately, the metrics used to measure end up being negotiated and have become adulterated."

Vice president and mill manager Steve Smith says FutureMark could describe the mill as anywhere from carbon neutral to carbon negative, but trying to get anyone to stay tuned in long enough to understand the accounting nuances is difficult. "It's highly technical and based on lots of assumptions that industry experts don't agree upon," says Smith. "Our customers just want a simple, digestible way to identify the environmental benefits of recycled paper. Stating the total recycled content of the paper is about as simple as you can get. It's converting old paper to new paper with very little in between."

FutureMark uses about 120,000 tons/yr of recovered paper

Closed loop picking up steam

Silver says that it is surprising the number of calls from customers expressing concern about how their paper is recycled.

For example, American Airlines called FutureMark because it thought all its old in-flight magazines were being recycled. They weren't: some were being dumped in the trash. This prompted further investigation, and the company discovered most of its expired magazines were exported overseas. Now, American Airlines sends the seatback magazines collected at its Chicago O'Hare hub to FutureMark's Alsip mill for local recycling.

The mill is now offering a "closed-loop" recycling option for customers, and it is a principle that is picking up steam. Silver estimates that the mill receives two to three calls monthly. The Grand & Toy (Canada) office supplies catalogue is printed annually. FutureMark takes the overruns back when it delivers paper for the new edition. Scholastic, a large children's publisher, also does a good job promoting closed loop. Johnson says dropping paper off at the customer and returning with trucks full of recyclable waste paper "is the right thing to do locally. The system we created through exporting waste paper is optimized for dollars per ton manufacturing, but long term, it's economically unsustainable and reduces the environmental benefits of recycling."

FutureMark is doing all it can to encourage local recycling of magazines and catalogues. It collects outdated textbooks from the Chicago school system. It hung a sign on its fence saying that FutureMark pays cash for old paper. The mill was surprised to collect 600 tons/month in this way. The mill is also an increasingly popular destination for tours with students. One local school has seen its paper collection program grow from zero to more than 1,000 lb (450 kg) in three years. These examples show that keeping it local does resonate with consumers.

Green to green

The environmental question has surpassed simple collecting and recycling. A mill's water footprint is an evolving metric that will increase with importance as the earth's fresh water reserves shrink. However, FutureMark is in good stead here. Compared with a comparable virgin paper mill, it uses 2-3 million fewer gallons of water per day and Johnson believes the mill can reduce that by up to 50% with further investment.

Besides the obvious environmental benefit, saving water also helps the mill save on its fuel bill. In fact, while a lot of companies in North America have been struggling economically, since it adopted its "green" strategy, FutureMark has been sustainably profitable allowing it to invest in the mill, particularly in its human resources.

For example, in the first quarter (traditionally the slowest) in 2011, the mill achieved a 15% increase in production volume over the comparable quarter in 2010. "The fact that we can raise our capacity and still sell all of our product in the weakest market season demonstrates that demand for recycled paper is strong," says Silver.

Increases in recovered paper costs have been covered by increased productivity, sales and prices. "The poor weather in the US this past winter, mostly the frequent storms that made collecting difficult, made price fluctuations worse than they should have been," Silver explains. "We feel prices will moderate. It's still much cheaper than pulp."

The mill now produces approximately 160,000 tons/yr of magazine and label paper. It uses 120,000 tons/yr of recovered paper, realizing an 80% yield. The rest of the furnish is filler and kraft pulp. As detailed in the February 2011 edition ofPPI(p. 22), the mill is able to source 90% of its recovered paper needs from within a 40-mi (65 km) radius. Of its furnish, 30% to 35% is post-consumer. The mill does a chain of custody measure. The post-consumer waste is accounted for in every load coming in and documented on a three-month running average.

Technically, the mill has made the change to neutral deinking. The advantage is that less chemical product is needed to lift the ink from the paper. The mill gets a higher brightness so it can use more ONP in its furnish and less optical brightening agent. The more efficient deinking means that the mill, in effect, elevates the value of the fiber. As Silver explains, it is turning newspaper into magazines instead of vice versa.

FutureMark is also looking at methods to reduce the amount of kraft pulp it has to put in the furnish. The end goal is to use none at all. Technology exists that allows the use of specialty starches to bind short fibers, so the company is looking at that. As well, it is also looking at non-wood fibers.

The high priority that FutureMark places on being green makes Nightingale's job of developing business easier. "At the very least, the fact that our products are recycled is a tie breaker," he says. "The key is to connect with the right companies and help them market this aspect if needed. It is an advantage."

Silver adds that Nightingale has helped "push" the label end of the business, an important growth area as magazine paper demand is seen as mature. With the neutral deinking, the mill can increase brightness, which is an opening to new markets. "We will diversify more and leverage our assets in new products and markets. We are looking at a list of things we may be able to produce in addition to recycled publication papers."

"The other side of business development is understanding the waste paper market. It is complex and we need to target growth of collections in certain waste paper segments to help us grow," Nightingale explains. "We want to ensure that we handle the desire to do the right thing on both the supply and customer ends of the business."

When asked how he foresees the situation in the next two years, Silver was adamant that FutureMark can and will get greener. "The train has left the station and it won't slow down; it will probably speed up. Recycled paper is becoming more and more mainstream. The danger to the paper industry is that if it does not keep up with consumer demand for recycled products, it is in danger of obsoleting itself.

"Give them what they want, not what you think they want."