More stringent regulations on sustainability are on the horizon. Consumer Markets Analyst Simon Creasey reports on the biggest advances across tissue’s production sectors already underway.

More stringent regulations on sustainability are on the horizon. Consumer Markets Analyst Simon Creasey reports on the biggest advances across tissue’s production sectors already underway.

Simon Creasey, Freelance journalist
Consumer Markets Analyst Simon Creasey

Industries that intensively use energy and natural materials have increasingly been thrust into the spotlight in recent years. Initially, their actions were scrutinised by environmental campaigners, but consumers have become more conscious of sustainability issues than ever before, and today many of them are making purchasing decisions based on the eco-credentials of brands.

The tissue industry has not escaped this scrutiny, and in the past some environmental campaigners argued that the sector was awash with greenwashing. However, over the last few years the industry has arguably been pioneering when it comes to sustainability issues with many companies pushing the envelope in terms of adopting innovative approaches to sourcing new environmentally friendly materials and manufacturing processes.

So what inroads has the industry made so far and where is it focusing its future efforts? Also, what impact might looming legislation in the UK, Europe and further afield have on those companies that have failed to keep up with the industry’s environmental pace setters?

One company that’s undoubtedly led the charge in the area of sustainability is LC Paper. The 140+ year old Spanish-based business has used its sustainability credentials as a point of difference in a highly competitive marketplace, according to its General Manager Pau Vila. A key area of focus has been to move towards net zero production through energy fulfilment.

“Energy in paper making consists of two main areas: electricity and industrial heat,” explains Vila. “For electricity, the company has implemented an on-site solar plant of 4MWp with 8.500 solar panels over 20 hectares of land, which covers about one forth of the [company’s] electricity needs during daytime.”

He says that due to the electricity demands of paper making the company can’t currently utilise electricity storage systems such as batteries, so to cover non-solar hours LCA relies on alternative methods of renewable electricity fulfilment.

“This challenge was overcome through the purchasing of certified renewable energy from the grid, which includes local hydroelectric plants that produce renewable electricity even in non-solar hours, thanks to the mountainous orography of the region,” says Vila.

For its heating needs, the company has implemented a high-capacity industrial biomass boiler, which is powered by residues from the forest cleaning activities over a radius of 20km around the company’s production site, which are undertaken to prevent the spread of wildfires.

“However, industrial biomass has a temperature limitation far below 500ºC, which is the temperature needed for the Yankee and hood of the tissue machines, so a different approach was fundamental for those specific areas where very high temperatures are required,” says Vila. “The technological choice was biomethane from nearby farming activities: animal residues are fermented until they become a gas suitable to reach temperatures over 500ºC without resorting to fossil fuels.”

In addition to reducing the carbon footprint of its production processes the company also invested a lot of time and effort into reducing the footprint generated by its packaging and logistics. To this end, LC Paper has completely eliminated plastic packaging from its tissue products range, by using cardboard boxes for AfH products and folding board packaging for At Home products.

The materials it uses are recycled, recyclable and compostable and offer logistic advantages such as better palletisation and stackability, which results in a reduced need of truck loads to deliver the same amount of product and, in turn, lowers emissions.

LC Paper has validated its measures through the ISO 14.067 standard and it has also achieved B Corp status. Vila said the company expects to further expand its decarbonisation efforts from the current scope one and scope two (paper making process) to scope three (full life cycle of the product, including pulp fulfilment and final distribution).

“That horizon includes joint initiatives with suppliers such as a common project with the Spanish pulp producer Ence, which develops a specific type of fibres called Naturcell Zero which have been produced under a specific low carbon pulp making process, in which the remaining emissions have been offsetted,” says Vila.

WEPA is another tissue company that takes sustainability seriously. It has launched a ‘4+1 Sustainability Strategy’.

“Our foundation is the bedrock for all this,” says a spokesperson for WEPA. “It is derived from our perception of ourselves as a responsible family business and focuses on our most important stakeholders. Our four industry-specific areas ‘future fibres’, ‘operational efficiency’, ‘sustainable hygiene paper portfolio’ and ‘portfolio extension through innovation’ build on the stable basis of our foundation.”

The company has also set itself challenging targets when it comes to increasing the amount of recycled materials and alternative materials it uses in its products in the future.

“One of our aims is to increase the share of recycled fibres and alternative fresh fibres in the raw material mix to at least 60%, thus reducing the ecological footprint of the fibres used by at least 25% by 2030. With recycled cardboard and Miscanthus, we recently introduced two raw material innovations for our hygiene products which contribute to achieving this goal.”

Poppies Europe has broken its approach to sustainability into key areas of focus. Those include developing and promoting 100% recycled products under its AfH brand Happy Trees, and reducing the fibre consumption in its virgin products.

Armindo Marques, Director at Poppies Europe, says: “Under the brand Cloud 9 we have reviewed the functional aspects of our napkins and tried to reduce the fibres needed in the product without compromising its performance. This was achieved through development of more technical material, enhanced fibres and strong marketing efforts to communicate to our customers the benefits.”

He adds that all of the company’s virgin paper is FSC accredited and the company also abides by the ISO14001 environmental management framework which defines Poppies‘ targets when it comes to energy saving.

“One effective way to save energy is to be more efficient at what you do and for that we have invested extensively in new machinery with lower consumption per tonne of tissue converted, in a new industrial site for operational streamlining and of course in people development with a full skill enhancement programme,” says Marques.

In addition to improving efficiencies the company has also installed solar panels on top of all of the roofs at its 12-acre production site, which means that more than 55% of its electrical energy needs are powered by the sun.

Essity is equally ambitious when it comes to rolling out innovative approaches to new materials and efficient, sustainable manufacturing. In Germany, it has opened what it claims is the first large-scale production of pulp for tissue made from agricultural byproducts in the form of wheat straw. In Sweden its tissue plant runs on fossil-free biogas and it has also opened a green hydrogen facility in Germany.

A spokesperson for Essity says: “As a leading global hygiene and health company, we are equally committed to both social and environmental aspects of sustainability. This is reflected in our sustainability priorities where we focus on 10 topics relevant to our industry and operations. Our journey to net zero, commitment to the UN Sustainable Development goals, our science based targets as well as external factors (legislation, etc) are very important components driving our initiatives.”

Essity has set itself ambitious targets to reduce its environmental footprint over the coming years and so too has Northwood, which has set itself the goal of being net zero by 2050.

A key part of its strategy has seen the business invest in modern, energy efficient equipment. For instance, a new boiler due to be fitted at its Northwood Tissue (Disley) mill later this year is expected to reduce CO2 by 15-20% and an upgrade to the insulation at the mill will deliver an additional 1.5% carbon saving. Northwood is also reducing the emissions of its fleet of vehicles by investing in 14 new state-of-the-art trucks and upgrading the remainder of its fleet by 2024.

And that’s not all. “Over the last three years we have made great strides in reducing the amount of plastic in our supply chain,” says Joel Quick, Sustainability Manager at Northwood. “Whilst plastic will always have a place in certain product categories, we have made significant investment to replace it with more renewable alternatives. The total of our reduction initiative is currently at approximately 51 tonnes per year removed from the supply chain, in hand towels alone. Our work on this is far from complete, as we continue to look for renewable materials, higher recycled contents and better recyclability of our packaging components.”

The company has also purchased REGO backed electricity since 2019, which has reduced carbon emissions by more than 2,500 tonnes of CO2e at Northwood Hygiene alone and its Northwood Consuma Tissue division has achieved zero waste to landfill.

For those companies who have not yet risen to the challenge as rapidly as the likes of Northwood the impending threat of stringent legislation looms large on the horizon. In addition to new EU anti-deforestation regulation, the UK government recently introducing guidelines around businesses transitioning to recycled materials and away from virgin fibre tree products. There are also suggestions lawmakers in the US might adopt a similar approach.

The industry is waiting with baited breath to see how things play out, but Vila says the regulatory changes currently ongoing in the EU and UK will be a force for good as they will act as accelerators to increase the speed at which the tissue sector implements its decarbonisation strategies.

“For instance, the ETS (Emissions Trading System) scheme in which tissue producers need to pay for each ton of CO2 emitted is already a significant incentive to move away from fossil-based energy sources. Local regulations such as the plastic packaging tax in Spain also accelerate changes in the products’ composition, packaging and production processes,” says Vila.

Poppies’ Marques agrees, but says that when it comes to sustainability a balance needs to be struck between regulatory measures and free market trade.

“In the UK the AfH market has sorted out the question of the use of recycled fibre a long time ago, but nevertheless, there is still a big effort to be made to process some qualities of recovered papers (like glassine or others) that could be recycled and are currently not due to equipment and technical challenges.” says Marques.

When it comes to the proposed tightening of forestry regulations and the use of raw materials the discussions have coincided with a growing industry interest in alternative fibres. Many producers like LC Paper are increasingly incorporating non-wood fibres such as bamboo or bagasse, which offer a number of benefits compared with eucalyptus fibres, including shorter growth times and a lower risk of deforestation.

“However, those present their own challenges such as the fact that both bamboo and bagasse are not commonly grown in Europe and thus need to be imported from overseas, with its associated high carbon footprint and complex supply chain governance due to long lead times,” explains Vila. “Imported fibres are also hard to include in certain sustainability schemes such as Ecolabel, due to the transparency and certification gap between European pulp producers and those from other geographies.”

He says the solution to this challenge could be the development of European grown alternative fibres such as straw pulp, which appears to be gaining traction to the extent there is an EU-wide funding project to help to prototype straw-based pulp development.

“LC Paper is closely monitoring the advances in the alternative fibres area as a strategic area of development,” says Vila.

The industry has made significant inroads in a relatively short period of time on the sustainability front, but there is still a long way to go. The heartening thing is many producers appear to be rising to the challenge and are taking the initiative rather than waiting for the regulatory stick to be wielded.