The story of Roermond: How Smurfit Kappa is making the circular economy a reality

Packaging giant Smurfit Kappa invites edie on a behind-the-scenes tour of its pioneering zero-waste paper mill in the Netherlands, which stands as an exemplar of the firm's global circular economy ambitions.

The stench of methane gas is overwhelming. Not to appear impolite, I attempt to disguise a mild feeling of anguish. For the factory workers who conduct their daily routines in these surroundings, however, the fumes generated by the imposing water treatment plant overhead represent the sweet smell of sustainability success.

After the initial discomfort, I am pleasantly distracted by a plethora of low-carbon, resource-efficient processes and technologies on display around me. This innovative-but-pungent anaerobic water treatment facility – which generates biogas from wastewater to produce 5% of the site’s total energy output – forms just one element of a revolutionary system developed by an organisation that is fully exploiting the opportunity to utilise waste, where others just see landfill.

I am one of a handful of journalists being taken on a behind-the-scenes tour of a paper mill owned and run by Smurfit Kappa, one of the world’s largest paper-based packaging businesses.

Situated on the outskirts of the quaint city of Roermond in the south of the Netherlands, this paper mill produces 600,000 tonnes of brown paper packaging each year, but sends absolutely no waste to landfill. An ultra-resourceful packaging process helps to produce less than a kilogram of solid waste for every metric tonne of paper that the mill makes, and that small amount of solid waste is then recycled to make new materials.

Around 80% of the raw fibre used to make the packaging comes from recycled paper, with the remainder coming from  virgin wood – to maintain a high-quality product – which is certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) or PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification).

The mill has also gained the laudable accolade of being the lowest energy user of its kind in Europe. While ambling through the factory, we pass another on-site sustainability solution that Dublin-headquartered Smurfit has implemented to further reduce emissions: a grand combined heat and power (CHP) system provides the mill with 114GWh of heat and power every year. In 2015, the energy-intensive facility required just 39GWh of electricity from the national grid.

Moreover, the site uses just 2.7 litres of water to produce a kilogram of paper – less than 2% of the volume needed to produce the same amount in a conventional mill. The water, drawn from a nearby river, is recycled several times and cleaned by organic processes before being returned to its original source.

A long journey

You would be forgiven for thinking that, with all of these ultra-efficient processes and on-site solutions, this mill is a novel, unique construction. In fact, this is just one of 36 paper and cardboard mills operated by Smurfit Kappa, which collectively helped the firm generate more than €8.1bn revenue in 2015. Last year, five of those mills – including Roermond – sent no waste to landfill.

The journey to this position has clearly been a long process for Smurfit, resulting in a business that now harbours aspirations of becoming entirely ‘zero-waste’. To gain a greater understanding of the firm’s remarkable sustainability achievements and bold ambitions for the future, I eagerly enlist the knowledge of someone who knows this company inside-out.

At the tour’s conclusion – and away from the potent vapours of the water treatment plant – I gratefully take a seat in the quiet office of group vice president of development Steven Stoffer. Since joining the organisation in 1990, Stoffer has overseen something of a sea change in green business practices, with the rollout of all of the aforementioned technologies, and more. I suggest he must gain immeasurable pride from these vastly considerable efforts.

“Proud is not the right word,” a stern-looking Stoffer calmly retorts. “It is a long journey and we take steps. More and more we realise that we have done quite a bit and I think there are plenty of reasons to be proud of the company – but we still have a long way to go.”

I am instantly captivated by the sense of drive in Stoffer’s authoritative demeanour – this is clearly not a man about to rest on his laurels. His single-minded approach towards driving a circular economy is based on a resolute determination to use sustainability to differentiate the company from the rest of the market and drive long-term success.

The mill makes brown packing paper exclusively from recycled and alternative fibres.

Focused on designing operations around a circular economy model, the environment is seen as inseparable from value creation among Smurfit Kappa’s stakeholders. The firm’s CSR mantra of ‘People, Planet, Profit’ underlines a desire to ensure the sustainability strategy is not only applicable to the company, but also to its customers – an approach Stoffer believes will enable Smurfit to continue operating long into the future.

“The vision from the beginning was to serve our customers and help them become successful in the area of sustainability,” he explains. “In the end, it is all for our customers. Our products had to be safe and environmentally friendly; and in the way we were producing our products, the whole process had to be environmentally sound.”

For Stoffer and Smurfit, a “nice story” is simply not good enough. The vice president of development realises that material progress can only be made through both tangible and challenging commitments.

A brief flick through the company’s latest CSR report, Sustainability in Every Fibre – itself made from 100% recycled paper – further highlights the extent to which sustainability is an integrated element of Smurfit Kappa’s operations. Last year, for instance, the ISO 50001-accredited firm recorded a notable carbon reduction of 22.6% per tonne of paper produced, from a 2005 benchmark – putting it well on track to supersede its 2020 target of reducing emissions by a quarter. Moreover, a commitment to ‘100% sustainable’ forest management is being strictly adhered to – a FSC Chain of Custody standard means that every single fibre used by the company can be traced all the way to the box.

The combined heat and power (CHP) system provides the mill with 114GWh of heat and power every year.

It is not hard to see why Smurfit Kappa is widely regarded as best in the class when it comes to sustainable packaging, then. Stoffer, though, is still not content. As his company accelerates towards its energy, water and waste reduction targets, the acutely ambitious Dutchman is eager to set even tougher goals in a relentless pursuit of a ‘closed-loop’ business.

“We had a vision from the very start but now I think it’s about making progress on that vision,” he adds. “It is, as I always say, a journey that never ends. We have reached 100% in the Chain of Custody, but on the carbon and waste and water, we still have a long way to go.”

Building trust

I ask Stoffer to elaborate on Smurfit Kappa’s long-term road-map for the future. Among his many aspirations is a seemingly implausible dream for the business to produce paper without the need for water – I blink at the mere suggestion. Currently, water is a crucial part of the paper and packaging manufacturing process – the Roermond facility alone produces 90,000 litres a day when operating on full steam. But Stoffer is adamant his dream will be fulfilled. If a goal is not demanding enough, then it is not worth setting, he says.

The water treatment facility generates biogas from waste water to produce 5% of the site’s total energy output.

This level of sustainability ambition has helped the company gain a strong reputation among its clients, which includes household names such as Nestlé and Proctor & Gamble (P&G). Smurfit Kappa is a member of both the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the UN Global Compact initiative, and it has been reporting to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) for more than a decade. Clearly, this is as a brand that businesses can trust.

And this trustworthiness extends to those outside of the industry too; as Smurfit endeavours to become a ‘good neighbour’ of the communities it operates in. Take the Roermond plant, for example – located just a stone’s throw away from the city centre, the mill engages collaboratively with local businesses to recycle unwanted side-streams, having developed a unique fuel pallet which is sold to the limestone industry as a black coal substitute.

Another thing that resonated powerfully with me throughout my Roermond mill tour experience was a pronounced sense of positive morale among the 260-strong workforce. This leads me to probe Stoffer about the level of employee engagement with Smurfit’s CSR strategy. Stoffer appears to have been waiting for this question, and proudly informs me that the firm’s sustainability success has only been possible through an inclusive team effort.

“It has to be something that is coming from the people itself,” he says. “The story of Roermond is a good example of that, where the people on the ground have a vision themselves and they see that, at a group level, this whole subject is taken very seriously. That’s how you make progress; it has to come from the individuals. As a group, we can develop a nice strategy, but the people have to be behind it.

“Across the business we have 45,000 employees so it is not easy to reach all of those. That is one of the reasons why we are communicating more proactively than we were perhaps five or six years ago when we were still in the process of ‘getting our house in order’. Now, we are ready to communicate more both internally and externally and, with that, we hope to take the second step.”

The packaging process helps to produce less than a kilogram of solid waste for every metric tonne of paper that the mill makes.

Brave new world

To achieve that ‘second step’, Stoffer recognises that Smurfit Kappa will increasingly need to implement new technologies to drive sustainability. I mention the potential of demand-response systems to reduce energy during peak periods and – rather unsurprisingly – Stoffer tells me this is already under development as a future technology at the Roermond site. Stoffer sees emerging technologies such as this as part of “a new world” that the company is ready to enter.

Further efficiency advancements throughout the papermaking process will go a long way to help, along with the switch from fossil fuel to biomass alternatives. Stoffer discusses the complex polymer ‘Lignin’, which I am assured will become the renewable fuel of the future. This is exactly the type of industry-leading insight which will enable Smurfit Kappa to build upon its considerable sustainability progress.

The business harbours aspirations of becoming entirely ‘zero-waste’.

I cannot resist the opportunity to ask whether Stoffer can ever envisage a time when all other factories in the Smurfit Kappa portfolio are ‘zero-waste’ and the business is truly ‘closed-loop’. He now sits forward with purpose and his eyes light up.

“We are dreaming of that, we absolutely are,” he says. “If we could reach that, we would be immensely happy. I’m convinced there will come a time when we are able to close all of the loops. For the moment, technology prohibits us from having 100% non-fossils as an industry. But as I said at the beginning, it is a journey. As technology develops, we will get there. If you take two to three years you perhaps won’t see much difference, but if you take 20 to 30 years then a lot can be done, and a lot will be done by 2050. I have no doubt about it.”

I wrap up our conversation by asking Stoffer if he remains confident that the packaging industry can follow Smurfit Kappa’s journey in achieving circular economy principles. Before I have a chance to finish that closing question, he nods his head vehemently to suggest the affirmative.

Any company can take this route, Stoffer stresses, regardless of its size or structure. He concedes that the process will be more difficult for smaller, single-operations companies, but maintains that the key to such a feat is, simply, sustainability leadership. “It takes the vision of a dedicated and passionate leader to drive sustainability”, he concludes in typically unwavering fashion. In Smurfit Kappa, it is clear that they have exactly that.

George Ogleby

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