Skip to content

Paper for sustainability

From separate waste collection to industry

When we talk about paper for sustainability we usually think of a political-administrative protocol, an agreement between industrial realities and environmental associations, or a letter of intent. But it’s not just it. Separate paper collection is essential for triggering circular economy processes, “where the value of products, materials and resources is kept in the economy for as long as possible. All the outputs of one process are inputs for another and therefore moving towards the circular economy involves reducing the consumption of virgin materials and reducing the generation of waste“ (Bellagio Declaration, 2020).

Strategic role in the circular economy

Assocarta and Legambiente have appealed to the government in the pages of a newspaper so that separate paper collections are considered essential in waste management for the development of the Italian circular economy.

”The paper and converting industry continues to produce – at the service of the country – packaging for food and medicines, sanitary papers, papers for special and medical uses, as well as for information culture – wrote the two associations -. But the paper industry plays a strategic role in the circular economy of the country: every year more than 5 million tons are recycled by Italian plants (10 tons per minute) and paper packaging recycling now exceeds 80%. With investments nearing completion that will expand the recycling capacity, the Italian paper industry is concretely implementing the circular economy in our country on a daily basis”.

For this reason, Assocarta and Legambiente together “thank the citizens, municipalities and businesses that contribute to the separate collection of paper, part of the Italian circular economy”. 

From paper production to alternative products

For some industrial realities, especially northern Europe, a real revolution of their structures is underway, a complete reinvention of the production line. Usually this happens when a product loses value or the production process becomes more complicated and expensive than the final product. The main problem is the network. Much of the paper production has been interrupted because the web has replaced many media, making the printing of content useless and superfluous. Although recent research made in the UK claims that the market is slowly returning to paper, this is the triggering factor that is pushing paper processing companies to transform their cellulose factory into a factory of derivatives such as glue, biofuels and carbon fiber for aircraft and wind turbines.

New uses for cellulose

As an alternative to papermaking, a new generation of low-energy pulp mills is on the way. Growing global demand for fossil-free materials is also helping to spur innovation, and big names like Stora Enso, UPM-Kymmene, Metsa Group, SCA and Holmen are on the hunt for new and lucrative uses for cellulose. Much of the research is in its infancy and many of these companies have not yet decided which markets to target. But after years of painful restructuring, some investors are starting to see earnings prospects in the sector.

A potentially infinite market

“If these companies manage to develop new materials to replace fossil-based ones, the market will be practically infinite,” said Sasja Beslik, head of the sustainable finance arm of Nordea, one of northern Europe’s leading financial groups and a major shareholder of Stora Enso. Stora Enso, a Finnish-Swedish company operating in the production of paper and cellulose pulp worldwide, is working on an interesting material: kraft lignin – a refined version of lignin, a substance which contains at least a quarter of wood and binds the fibers of the tree together.

Companies racing to innovate

Although Europe has found itself managing a 25% drop in demand for paper in the last ten years, it still remains a key export sector for the Nordic countries which have managed to convert businesses by directing them towards other segments such as packaging and hygiene products. Seeing potential in alternative uses for their timber, companies that have traditionally put relatively little money into research are now looking to ramp up their innovation spending, with a view to further diversify.

An insight into the research and innovation of the paper material and its cellulose-based derivatives in the architecture and design sector can be found in the article ”The future of architecture and design in paper – Studies and projects in the name of innovation and sustainability”.

(About paper for sustainability, read the Lubica Story by Giovanna Bittante)