We realised we needed to become a referent at something – and we decided to put all of our efforts in becoming a leading player in sustainability
We realised we needed to become a referent at something – and we decided to put all of our efforts in becoming a leading player in sustainability

The tissue industry has long been on a journey towards clean manufacturing. In many cases research, innovation and diversification towards that aim began decades ago.

The benefits were early recognised to be many: a major driver towards economic advantage, increased savings and margins on site through energy, technology and production; through packaging, distribution and logistics; and increasingly a necessity down the years, answering the gradually rising clamour among environmentally aware consumers.

Today, issues surrounding carbon neutrality and sustainability rarely leave the headlines, and in tissue many mills are approaching the zero waste horizon … or have attained it.

TWM reports on two leading case studies. Essity’s Lilla Edet plant in Sweden became the company’s first large-scale CO2 emission-free tissue production facility in May 2021. As Christian Carlsson, manager at the plants puts it: “It’s been a long journey.”

And L.C. Paper in Spain put all its efforts into becoming a leading player in sustainability and earning the niche market of eco-friendly tissue products. Pau Vila, Transformation Manager, explains how they did it.

Christian Carlsson, site manager, Lilla Edet, Essity
Christian Carlsson, site manager, Lilla Edet, Essity

Christian Carlsson, Plant Manager, Lilla Edet, Essity: We are proud to say that as of May 2021, Lilla Edet is now Essity’s first large-scale CO2 emission-free tissue production plant. Successful shorter tests had already taken place during the beginning of 2021, when on 22 March we received deliveries of biogas. Since conducting longer test runs and completely replacing natural gas with renewable liquefied biogas (LBG) as energy to produce our Tork brand and our consumer tissue products, we have reduced our fossil CO2 emissions to zero during normal operations. Both natural gas and biogas contain methane, and as biogas is renewably produced through the digestion of biological waste, it does not then give rise to fossil CO2 emissions.

No major technical changes were needed to achieve this as we had already made some major changes in the past, changing from liquefied natural gas (LNG) to LBG. If we had still been using propane, then this change would not have been possible to do. That was quite a major investment but it was some time ago now. It’s been a long journey. Before that we also removed all the steam production from oil so now we have a bio-boiler so we are burning our sludge, and that is producing the steam for the production and we are also supplying Lilla Edet’s municipality and we are covering their need of district heating. For us it’s something to be proud of and a number of years we have worked towards this goal.

Sustainability will continue to be high on our agenda and we have a very clear strategy. Even despite the outbreak of Covid-19 last year, we have stringently kept to our clear and ambitious sustainability targets. It’s been a very busy – and a very different – year. Most people are still working from home if it’s not critical for them to be on site, and we have spent the last year committed to taking care of our people and protecting them from the disease, continuing to contribute to society as our products are such important products, and also securing the business and taking care of our customers.

We are also constantly working to reduce our energy consumption at the plant. Energy continues to be a very strong focus also. When I started working here in 2009, we were already on the low side of energy consumption and we have been optimising the process and being more efficient year after year. We are always looking for new was to be more energy efficient.

We definitely have further investment plans in the future, but for now this is our focus and make this big improvement.

When we met at Lilla Edet a year and a half ago, we were also heavily into using recycled plastics for our packaging, and this has also been improving since then. Almost all our products are now packed in post-consumer recycled packaging (PCR). There is huge demand for these products from customers and consumers, who are asking more and more about it. Awareness of these types of products is increasing all the time and we want to be brave enough to take the lead here.

We have also seen an increase in demand and hygiene awareness. It’s been increasing all the time, but when the pandemic started – or at least when it came to Europe in March 2020 – we saw the same pattern here … people piling up, there were empty shelves of toilet paper. This is how people reacted, and the psychology behind it I can’t answer. But in March 2020 we had a huge peak in demand for consumer products. Over the months that followed, it stayed higher than usual in the consumer market, higher than pre-pandemic. But as people were working from home more, demand for AfH products has been a little lower, especially for toilet paper for this market. For hand wiping and surface cleaning in this sector, we of course saw an increase in demand for these products. There was a change in behaviour, people are much more aware of prioritising hygiene and we’re still seeing a big demand for these products.

There are two main questions that will continue over the coming years – suitability, and how sustainable the products people are buying, and hygiene and health. It’s important to know if you buy a product and want to use it to dry your hands or clean surfaces, you need to buy a product that is doing the job so you can use just the required amount. This is a clear focus for us a company to explain this to the customer, what type of products are suitable to this task.

Pau Vila, Transformation Manager, L.C. Paper: The tissue sector in Europe, and particularly in Spain, has been suffering from low margins that have driven mergers and acquisitions across the market. In this context, being competitive as a smaller mill is challenging, as we are not able to compete in the same economies of scale. At L.C. Paper, we realised that in order to remain a strong player in such a saturated market we needed to become a referent at something – and we decided to put all of our efforts in becoming a leading player in sustainability and earning the niche market of eco-friendly tissue products, both in jumbo parent reels for converters as well as finished products for AfH and Consumer.

For the electricity consumption, we committed to purchasing 100% of our electricity certified from renewable sources, while we are building a solar power plant for self-consumption with more than 8.500 panels in a 20Ha site just by our mill. 

As of today, most factories use FSC-certified pulp, or have Ecolabel certifications, so in order to position ourselves as leaders in sustainability it was evident that we had to go well beyond that. We decided to focus our strategy in three axes:

First, carbon-neutrality. Carbon emissions in papermaking are mostly related to energy usage, which includes both steam and electricity. Carbon neutrality can be achieved mainly through developing carbon-neutral alternatives for each of the two main energy consumption vectors that most paper mills have: electricity and steam. We have a specific initiative for each of them. For transitioning the steam to carbon-neutral sources, we launched a biomass boiler in 2017. It mainly consists of a high-capacity industrial boiler (4 t/h) which is powered by residues from the cleaning of nearby forests, which are routinely undertaken to avoid wildfires.

We also use the residues of the water treatment plant (sludge) to power our boiler and generate steam. In the energy world, biomass is universally considered a carbon-neutral source, as the CO2 captured by the vegetation during its life exceeds the CO2 emitted during the combustion of said vegetation. It is also important to note that biomass doesn’t use vegetation specifically cut down for power sourcing, but rather from forest cleaning activities that would otherwise have no clear usage.

For the electricity consumption, we committed to purchasing 100% of our electricity certified from renewable sources, while we are building a solar power plant for self-consumption with more than 8.500 panels in a 20Ha site just by our mill. We expect to have it working by late 2021 to early 2022.

This will allow the generation of 3,9 MWh peak on-site (self-consumption) through a PPA agreement. That power figure is still far from our total electricity consumption. For the rest of the consumption, we already purchase electricity from the grid with 100% renewable sourcing guarantee. Our goal is to progressively expand our in-house renewable generation over the upcoming years, reducing our dependence from grid purchasing; however, it is important to note that the carbon emissions are zero either if it is renewable electricity purchased from the grid or if it’s on-site generation.

So, as of today, we are already able to produce manufacturing orders with zero emissions, consuming steam from biomass and electricity purchased from certified renewable sources, and we plan on moving part of that purchased electricity to in-house solar produced in the upcoming months. It is also important to clarify that, as of today, our focus on carbon-neutrality is in the scope of our manufacturing process. We still have room to further develop that approach in the before-and-after manufacturing: from pulp sourcing, transportation, delivery to customers. A first step in that direction has been to move all of our converted products’ packaging to cardboard, as it allows great logistics optimisation and stacking, thus reducing the number of trucks needed for delivering converted products and making it easier to compensate the transportation related emissions in the future.

Our second competitive axis is independent certifications. It’s increasingly difficult to differentiate greenwashing claims from tangible process changes. For that reason, we believe it’s fundamental to certify each step we take, by trusted and independent audits. In this regard, we have been one of the first tissue mills to be EcoVadis Gold certified, and most recently, the first EU mill to be B Corp certified – both of them are trusted environmental and CSR audit programmes. We also regularly monitor our improvements in carbon emissions through the ISO 14.067 audit.

Our third competitive axis is increasing the circularity of our plant and defining a zero-waste horizon. As we approached a new energy sourcing paradigm, we were able to introduce innovations in terms of circularity and waste recycling. We installed a sludge drier which converts the sludges of the water treatment plant into sludge, which can be later used in the biomass plant to generate electricity. On the other hand, by switching to cardboard packaging for the converted products, we are now able to recycle the packaging of defective products in-house, making repulping easier.

Regarding the next steps in sustainability for our company: the solar plant that we are currently constructing is a pilot test that will be expanded over the years if successful. We already have the land and the permits to grow the renewable solar electricity generated on-site.

As is typical for the tissue market, most mills (and ours too) work 24/7. This is a challenge when combined with solar power, as it only works during the daytime. We are currently exploring different options in terms of energy storage to solve that challenge. However, bear in mind that the rest of the electricity that we cannot generate on-site (including that of the nighttime) is purchased with 100% renewable certificate, so it is already carbon-neutral electricity despite not being produced on-site.

Our approach to sustainability, and specifically carbon-neutrality, is incremental and cyclical. We started this path decades ago with little improvements in energy consumption and sourcing. That philosophy quickly translated to the product definition itself: we prioritise one ply and high grammage products when possible, instead of two low grammage plies; we developed printed designs for our cardboard boxes to make them appear to be transparent, so this format can work in consumer stores. Each process innovation to further reduce energy consumption or allow a greener energy supply results in new know-how to be applied in our product definitions, and each new product definition opens the door to further optimisations in machinery design and manufacturing process.