Pulp Fiction – Paper Fact
By Donald Horne
Pulp and paper. It is one of the pillars that Canada was built on – but for a large segment of the public, the industry is mistakenly viewed as an environmental hazard.
The reality is – paper is one of the most efficient process industries in the world.
Mariana Sandin, OSIsoft’s Pulp & Paper Industry Principal, shares her thoughts in an exclusive interview with ProcessWest on where the industry is today, the challenges it faces, and where it is headed in the century to come.
PW: The pulp and paper industry can relate to the oil and gas sector when it comes to public perception – or more accurately, misperception. What can be done to educate those who feel the logging and paper sectors are “environmentally unfriendly”?
Sandin: Almost all P&P companies are very close to their communities since most mills are located in remote areas, and, in many cases, are the biggest employer of the surroundings. Employees can be your best ambassadors, so one way to educate others is to ensure employees know what strategies the mill implements regarding sustainability so the employees can pass it along to others. But the outreach needs to go beyond their regions.
For example – deforestation; when we think of it we may think that the P&P industry is behind it. In reality, the industry has different ways to ensure that their forests (their livelihood) are well taken care of locally and around the world. Since wood is the only natural resource that can be replenished, many P&P companies practice certified wood sustainable forest management policies that require you to plant two or more trees for every one that is harvested. For the paper manufacturers, only certain species of woods are really valuable (due to plant design) and they have to be accessible for the harvesting operations, so the harvesting of trees is not indiscriminate.
In the last decade the net forest area has increased more than 10 million acres in the U.S. alone, and in Canada it’s been stable for more than 25 years. Overall inventories on private timberlands (which provide more than 90 per cent of the domestic wood and paper products) has increased close to seven per cent since 2008.
Certifications and education are two-way streets. I think P&P manufacturers need to get better at making the information more readily available, and for the consumer of paper products we need to make sure to consume it from sources that are certified.
PW: From a Canadian perspective, what technologies could be incorporated now to enhance production, improve upon environmental stewardship?
Sandin: Technology in manufacturing is giving us almost unlimited options. First, we can connect with the forest. In the past, we could get information from bits and pieces, but there was no easy way to connect it all and make it accessible. Now, “The Forest of the Future” includes data from geospatial technologies, weather information, and mobile equipment data, and makes it available so operators can use it to make decisions to improve the harvesting operations. This information can also be shared with environmental agencies and others in the supply chain to improve the entire process.
We’re also seeing changes inside the mill as well. Typically, companies have three goals: lower operational costs like energy and water; increase output from the same capital; and reduce safety risks and regulatory violations.
Some companies like Verso have cut water usage by 20 per cent and energy by 9 per cent, while increasing the amount of power they receive from biomass. These changes are a result of analytics, combined with operators slightly tweaking different parameters and processes based off the data.
We’re also seeing retrofits of older mills that were geared for newsprint. With newsprint drying up, they are shifting over to more profitable materials and products like packaging. For instance, Fortress retrofitted a traditional plant to now produce dissolving pulp, which can used in textile and other specialty products. Verso’s plant was also a retrofit.
PW: How have companies like Mondi, Evergreen and Klabin tackled problems like production tears, and how are they improving fiber recycling recovery?
Sandin: The first and most common production problem these companies try to tackle is predictive maintenance because reactive maintenance, i.e. letting the system break, can be 60 to 90 percent more expensive than implementing predictive maintenance. By leveraging sensor technology that identifies issues and alerts operators when there are changes in the equipment, predictive maintenance can have huge impact on an organizations bottom line.
Once they have a handle on this, many will move toward the task of trying to get more product out of the same footprint. Klabin is one of the more interesting companies in paper today. They recently opened a plant that is the largest ever industrial investment in the state of Parana (Brazil). By monitoring and tweaking their processes, they have been able to increase output by 3,400 dry tons a year. They also used data signals to prevent two boiler shutdowns that could have cost $9.6 million.
Evergreen has been able to replicate best practices from one plant to another and train operators to follow specifications in order to improve quality and decrease waste. In 2017 they presented a use case that represented $180,000 worth of savings and improving quality in 60 per cent.
Another way that companies are improving operations and processes is through advanced technology like artificial intelligence (AI). Many companies are investing in advance analytics and starting to use AI to understand better the correlations between operating variables that may be hidden to the common engineer. This approach allows companies, like Mondi, to learn relationships that they are not commonly aware of, and gives them a list of priorities of conditions to avoid or to improve. Use case range from predicting and improving product quality, production rates, or chemicals consumptions. These efforts are just being implemented across the world, and we should start seeing the results soon. I am excited to see what the Mill of the Future would look like.
PW: The issue of plastic pollution is front-of-mind right now; how can wood fibre products step in to become as ubiquitous as plastic, but without the non-recyclable waste aspect?
Sandin: This is a tricky question because plastic and paper are materials that have different properties, and both are recyclable (up to a point). Today, about 60 per cent of the paper waste is recycled versus nine per cent of plastics, but the anti-plastic sentiment is tangible. More and more states are banning plastic straws for example, and now paper straws are all over the Internet. For the paper industry, this is an opportunity to make other paper products, as well as to innovate the use of the resources in P&P operations.
Now, a material’s properties are important; paper’s hydrophilic properties cause it to absorb water, so there’s still a need for some hydrocarbon coatings to make it apt to hold liquids. The opportunity here is to be more efficient with the application of these chemicals or find new materials that are more environmental friendly.
PW: Tariffs. They seem to be ever-present when Canada looks to export to the U.S. – specifically when it comes to softwood lumber. Much has been done to overcome and remove these obstacles – what else can be done to stop U.S. protectionism?
Sandin: I don’t think softwoods is a strength for the Canadian forest, simply for the sheer amount of inventory in the USA. I think Canada has a tremendous opportunity in new materials from either softwoods or hardwoods that the U.S. is not paying a lot of attention to. NCCs is one of them, they can have tremendous value for several industries and this is just being explored at industrial levels.
Looking at a broader picture, Asia and Africa are other regions to look at. Their lack of natural fibers can help to position Canada to be a partner in the development of these regions.
Now, keep in mind that the U.S. is not only imposing tariffs on Canada. The U.S. also has to deal with retaliatory tariffs from other places, namely China, that poses a big problem for U.S. exports. The current administration is trying to balance the exports/ important deficit, but at the cost of curtailing the U.S. market share of global trading. This is an opportunity for Canada who is very mature in the P&P industry.
PW: On a related topic, has the reworked NAFTA (now USMCA) gone far enough to create a stable, tariff-free market for Canadian wood and wood-based products?
Sandin: I think USMCA kept some of the good parts of NAFTA regarding free-market and fair-trade forefront, which is a positive sign. The negotiations were well received across the P&P community.
One thing to keep in mind: free-trade among U.S.-Mexico-Canada is a good thing for the P&P. If we think of the manufacturing industries as a whole, not only P&P, the packaging products segment will benefit from a better trade as products move across the borders.
PW: What will the pulp and paper industry look at 50 years from now? Will pulp and paper still be around 50 years from now?
Sandin: The P&P industry will remain strong, will continue to evolve and change, and potentially make other products we cannot envision right now. The P&P industry used to be just a printing industry, but today it’s a packaging industry, and tomorrow it can be the industry that leads environmental sustainability, enables health, builds skyscrapers, or simply makes life comfortable.