UPM drives towards a circular economy

Story 31.10.2019 9:00 EET


The recent UN Climate Action Summit saw corporations commit to ambitious sustainability goals across their business and value chains. UPM Timber and UPM Plywood’s efforts as part of the Zero Solid Waste project is another example of how companies are upping the ante in the fight against climate change.


Two years ago, UPM Timber and UPM Plywood’s Finnish mills became the first UPM businesses to achieve its Zero Solid Waste project’s recycling targets. Having achieved this first goal, UPM Timber and UPM Plywood — along with the rest of the company — have set their sights on achieving the Zero Solid Waste to Landfill goal by 2030. This means not depositing any waste in landfill sites or incinerating waste without energy recovery within the next 11 years. To meet this ambitious goal, they will harness innovative new technologies, improve waste collection and reuse to create a true circular economy.

100% raw material utilisation

UPM instigated the idea of utilising every bit of raw material several years ago.

“We strive to utilise at least 98% of the raw material in the process, and to put the remaining 2% to use in new innovations,” explains Pekka Ståhlberg, Director, Circular Economy and Industrial Solutions at UPM.

The efficient use of renewable wood is at the core of UPM’s business, enabling the company and its various divisions to reuse or recycle most of their production waste and use it, either as raw material or in energy production. This is especially true for Timber products.

“Most of the log will, of course, be utilised as sawn timber. The remainder is processed into high-quality raw materials: chips go to pulp, saw dust is split between the pulp and pellet industries, bark is burned to produce energy, and a small part goes to landscaping businesses,” explains Mika Lampola, Maintenance Project Manager at UPM Timber.

The environmental benefits of this approach are fairly obvious, essentially ensuring a lower carbon footprint thanks to a circular economy. However, there are also business benefits. “Reusing waste or residues in innovative products is also a way of improving our competitiveness,” explains Ståhlberg.

Striving to achieve zero solid waste

UPM Timber and UPM Plywood then proceeded to meet UPM’s commitment to not deposit any waste in landfill sites or incinerate waste without energy recovery by 2030. However, they aren’t resting on their laurels, as they’re now looking for new, more efficient ways to meet the criteria. At its heart, the strategy is simple: more with Biofore. Eventually, the goal is to attain a circular economy, which the company sees as the cornerstone of a sustainable future.

Emerging technologies are an exciting part of UPM’s pursuit of a true circular economy. Ståhlberg cites industrial biotechnology, 3D printing and efficient energy technologies as key “tools to create innovative products and solutions”. These technologies enable UPM to generate economic, social and environmental value for both the company’s stakeholders and society overall.

Of course, a true circular economy also requires collecting waste products and giving them new life. To this end, Lampola explains that “[e]very effort is made to separate waste at collection points, and for all waste fractions there is a partner who processes them into suitable raw materials.” Materials suitable for direct use, such as cardboard, plastic, paper, metal, cables, glass and hazardous waste, have separate collection bins.

Overall, UPM is currently about halfway towards achieving its zero waste to landfill goal, while UPM Timber has already reached this ambitious goal. With that said, UPM Timber continues to work on more innovative ways to meet the criteria, so that it remains a zero waste operation well into the future. Lampola explains that it can be a challenge to find a “commercially sensible and direct destinations for collected raw materials,” especially after accounting for prices and use cases.

Although there is still work to be done, the tremendous progress that UPM Timber and UPM Plywood have made towards reducing waste at all points across their businesses is inspiring. Ultimately, Ståhlberg says, once UPM achieves its goal of becoming a Zero Solid Waste to Landfill company, “we will not deposit any waste at landfill sites or incinerate waste without energy recovery”.

Essential for the future

Recent climate news underscores the urgent need for businesses to embrace environmentally responsible practices and goals. On September 23, 2019, attendees at the United Nations Climate Action Summit demonstrated a growing recognition that climate action must be rapidly accelerated.

In his closing remarks at the summit, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for concrete plans from both nations and businesses. He warned: “we need more concrete plans, more ambition from more countries and more businesses. We need all financial institutions, public and private, to choose, once and for all, the green economy.”

Text: Lorelei Yang