Greener footprints

Paper manufacturer M-real aims for a no-skeletons approach to developing new recycled papers, as John Haven found out

A major international paper manufacturer faces challenges in developing and launching a new product with obvious demand from environmentally aware customers.

In M-real's case this is Era Silk - a recycled coated silk paper suitable for quality brochures and reports. But the firm's main output is paper made from virgin fibre, and few people can be unaware of the criticism this industry has faced in the past. It was important to ensure there were no environmental skeletons in the cupboard that might compromise the credibility of both the new paper and its users.

"Our customers were telling us again and again they wanted papers with good environmental credentials, especially recycled papers," says Business Development Manager, Keith Livermore.

"The demand covered three main applications: photocopying, transactional print, such as invoices and statements, and finally for marketing - brochures, catalogues, newsletters and CSR reporting. The first category is catered for by our office paper, Evolve.
"For transactional print, we have recently launched Modo Laser and Preprint recycled reels. But the third category was the jewel in the crown - a coated recycled paper
with the widest green footprint possible."

Three main factors were driving the interest from large organisations:
  • Corporations were themselves examining the overall environmental impact of their business
  • Shareholders were asking questions
  • The desire to show Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
Unique selling point
M-real was aware there were already coated recycled papers available but not one made from UK waste. This gave the opportunity to market a product with a unique selling point - the key benefit of reducing waste sent to landfill.
Having established the demand and a USP, M-real examined its capability to
produce such a paper. Surprisingly, for an industry where a new or improved
product may involve huge capital investment in at least a new paper machine, the resources and capacity were already in place.

M-real has two UK mills, situated close to each other in Sittingbourne, Kent. The Sittingbourne Mill produces high-quality coated papers for magazines and brochures. A few miles away in the village of Kemsley, the New Thames Mill consists of a recovered fibre (RCF) plant and recycled paper mill. Both had the ability and sufficient capacity to fulfill production of the new paper.
Another important factor was the environmental credentials of both mills, where waste treatment, recycling and management systems have been subject to a continuous programme of improvement. They each hold certification in ISO 14001 and EMAS (the eco-management and audit scheme). The mills' combined heat and power plant is recognised as an industry leader and is a full member of the Carbon Trust. Waste transport distances are kept to a minimum and pulp output is chlorine free.

Furthermore, the RCF Plant is working towards zero waste and constantly looks for new ways to use by-products of the recycling process. Water is clarified sufficiently to be reused. Solid wastes, including short fibres, ink and toners are known as sludge and historically have been given to local farmers to use on fields as soil conditioner.

Uses for sludge
About 50% of the sludge is combusted in the waste to energy plant, assisting with the powering of the site. The resultant ash is used in cement manufacture. New and innovative uses for sludge are being introduced, including boards for packaging and internal partitioning.

The RCF plant has the capacity to recycle up to 180,000 tonnes of waste paper a year. This is all genuine waste collected from offices and kerbside collections, from within a 100-mile radius of the mill, reducing road transport distances. This removes the need for waste equivalent to the size of five Royal Albert Halls going to landfill every year.

Although the waste paper stream is subject to fluctuations, M-real continues to improve its supply through partnerships such as that with London Remade and commercial waste collectors.

"It was a relatively small leap from making uncoated recycled paper at New Thames to developing a new coated grade," says Livermore.

"It was a local decision, albeit one watched with interest by our parent company in Finland. We had the determination, and ran trials using a mix of recycled and virgin pulps on the coated paper machine at Sittingbourne. After remaking and running printing tests on the finished product, we were ready to sound out our customers on its value to them. Both our paper merchant partners and a sample of large corporations gave a resounding 'yes' to the new paper."

Another enthusiastic reaction was received from the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) who was told about the project when it was about three-quarters into its realisation. WRAP representatives visited the RCF plant at New Thames, and were happy to endorse the launch of the new grade.

Why not 100% recycled?
But there was one frequently asked question: Why wasn't there more than 50% recycled fibre in the new product, when it is possible to purchase 100% recycled papers? The answer is to maximise the paper's quality, which is designed to compete in whiteness, brightness, strength and printability with virgin fibre coated papers.

"When we explain the aim is to reduce landfill, then the product's mix of fibres is appreciated. We are enlarging the portfolio of papers that use recycled fibres, creating more uses for recycled waste, and have the potential to swallow up even more. Provided the balance of fibres comes from certified and sustainable sources, objections disappear," says Livermore.

It was vital that the new paper's non-recycled content and its manufacturing processes should not be open to criticism. The business's policy is to use wood from sustainable forests and is committed to forest certification. M-real has asked all of its wood suppliers to seek certification and all of their own mills are currently working towards chain of custody accreditation.

Better transparency
This information is published in the company's Paper Profiles information sheets, produced for each brand of paper it manufactures. The Paper Profiles also contain details of environmental standards reached in the mill where the paper is manufactured. This is a significant move to improve transparency in the company's operations by making available such a large amount of detail on raw materials and their processing.

Nor is the corporation standing still on environmental manufacturing improvements. A recent development in Finland is the opening of the Kaskinen pulp mill, which will supply pulp to M-real's paper mills, and represents a major capital investment by the company.

Kaskinen will produce 300,000 tonnes of bleached chemithermomechanical pulp (BCTMP), which together with another BCTMP mill at Joutseno will make it a world leader in both production and technology of this type of pulp.

An exceptional feature of the new mill is its links with another mill in the same locality operated by a different owner, Botnia. These include the sharing of chemical and energy maintenance, as well as environmental protection and logistics features. For instance, the BCTMP mill's surplus chemicals are used up in the Botnia's mill's production processes, and its waste water is linked to the latter's waste water treatment plant. This type of collaboration has not yet been adopted in any other part of the world.

Raising standards
M-real's commitment to raising standards is necessary if the company is to introduce new products, like Era Silk, that will be purchased for their broad environmental footprint.

"We've now had visits to the New Thames RCF plant by 20 FTSE 100 companies, as well as government bodies and the larger design agencies who specialise in report and accounts or CSR reports," says Livermore.
"Their response has been excellent, and we are confident will translate into healthy sales for Era Silk. This will help us achieve our vision - to reduce the pressure on landfill. The UK is running out of holes in the ground and we are in a position to provide a viable alternative."

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