Technological advancements are important for any industry, but are especially vital to an industry based upon natural resources such as papermaking. Recently, I presented at PaperCon2012 in New Orleans, the largest pulp and paper technical convention in the world, bringing together CEOs, mill managers, scientists, engineers and suppliers from the industry. Following are some of the insights I shared in regards to China’s technological and environmental revolution for the sustainable production of paper and paper products.
If you take a close look at China’s approach to paper production you’ll find that common perceptions of China as an outdated and environmentally unfriendly country are no longer valid. In fact, the environmental practices observed in Chinese paper mills are often better than the standards set in Europe and North America.
This is because in order to achieve a more sustainable paper production business model and “go green,” China developed a two-pronged approach that focuses on changing the way they create and deliver raw materials and final products.
The first element focuses on better technology. Through technology, China is able to improve its environmental footprint even with a dramatic increase in demand. New, sophisticated technology allows China to combine every level of paper production in ways that are redefining the rules on sustainability. For example, China has eliminated old and outdated mills and is developing more sustainable, advanced production sites that are newer, bigger and greener. This allows for cleaner wastewater, reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and greater efficiencies especially in energy consumption.
In fact, China is now home to one of the world’s biggest paper machines, the Jinhai PM2, which combines modern technology and a small environmental footprint to outperform its predecessors. In addition, Chinese paper production facilities are investing in environmental parks and facilities that reflect their green aspirations.
The second element focuses on better use of raw materials. While common knowledge leads us to believe that recycling is the best way to go green, an in-depth comparison study shows that using certain fast-growing trees can actually be more sustainable in the long term.
For example, old recyclable material must be transported, treated and shipped – a process that takes energy, fuel and water. When recycling was the only option, it did have one benefit: it made measuring the “green-ness” of a product easy, for both manufacturers and consumers. As long as you knew the percentage of recycled content within a product, then you knew how environmentally sound it was.
The problem with this metric is that it has resonated – with consumers, governments and environmental organizations – long beyond the days when it was our only green metric. By today’s standards, the process of recycling is a very energy intensive way to “go green” and shouldn’t be viewed as the only option.
In comparison, tree farmers around the world are proving to be ingenious sustainability innovators whose models for success fit outside of this outdated measurement. For example, APP has found that using virgin fibers from fast-growing tree farms is a sustainable companion to recycling. A seed can grow to 60 feet tall in as little as six years, meaning that entire forests can be cultivated quickly and efficiently for use in paper production. Utilizing both recycled content and content from fast-growing trees protects valuable old-growth trees, saves energy in paper production and makes a difference in the environment.
This strategy is revolutionizing the paper industry and sustainability as a whole, proving that it is time to take note from China and rethink how we can improve standards, processes and technology to drive sustainable innovation in paper making around the world.