Story | 06/01/2015 13:11:00

The many futures of paper

The death of print has been foretold ever since digital media began to flourish 20 years ago. While it may be true that newsprint has been hit hard in the internet age, there are many young innovators who believe that instead of mourning paper’s demise, we should rally around its renaissance.

One of them is Spyros Bousios, Circular Economy Expert at the Netherlands Kenniscentrum Papier en Karton (KCPK). Sharing his vision at the European Paper Week in Brussels last November, the young researcher predicted that paper is set to assume a key role within the emerging bio-based economy.

“I expect the industry will become more flexible in its selection of raw materials and more active in extracting maximum value out of its feedstock by supplying more than ‘just’ paper and board,” says Bousios.

Valuable feedstock

His vision revolves around the ‘Multiple-Input Multiple-Output’ mill. Behind this concept lies a simple rationale: greater flexibility in the raw materials going in; greater diversity in the products coming out.

“Rather than relying on conventional virgin cellulose from trees, the paper mill of the future will draw from a wider pool of streams, including agricultural by-products – such as tomato plant stems. We are also looking into the use of annual plants like miscanthus and the use of grass from nature conservation areas in the production of food packaging.”

At the mill’s ‘exit’ end, Bousios sees potential for extracting more profit from streams that currently consume money in disposal costs. Everything ‘non-paper’ that leaves the mill should not be written off as ‘waste’. Instead it should be treated as potentially valuable feedstock. Rejects, sludge and process waters contain valuable cellulose fibre and other organic and inorganic components that are severely underused.

“We have been exploring the potential for extracting high-value applications such as bioplastics, green chemicals and composite materials.”

Smarter grades

Another reason to get excited about paper’s future is the new functionality being added to paper products through innovative materials and technologies, notes Bousios. “For instance active paper-based food packaging can protect food from degradation.”

Bousios hopes his research will serve as an eye-opener showing the industry how it can secure a long-term future by embracing out-of-the-box ideas that defy established business models.

“The paper industry has vast experience operating in a bio-based context, and this experience will prove critical in the transition from fossil fuels to a bio-based economy. Paper is set to become a hub connecting many industries,” concludes Bousios.

Many of Bousios’ predictions are already becoming reality at UPM. Though its roots are still planted firmly in the paper industry, the company is now also carving out a niche as bio-economy pioneer, with biofuels, biocomposites and other high-value applications complementing its traditional portfolio.

Paradigm challenger

Like Bousios, Janne Varvemaa, Portfolio Director for Paper R&D at UPM, believes in challenging past paradigms. Leading a 100-strong team in Lappeenranta, he works closely with colleagues in Augsburg, Germany and Changsu, China to create sustainability-driven innovations with a strong customer-oriented approach.

“We need to be humble enough to understand our customers’ needs and yet bold enough to suggest eco-solutions we truly believe will help them,” he says.

He names UPM Valor as a prime example of a recent customer-driven innovation. This revolutionary high-end paper – 15% lighter than similar grades – answers a long-standing customer request: ‘The current quality is good. Can I have it cheaper?’

“We took apart the paper’s characteristics and figured out it’s actually the ‘optics and haptics’ that define quality, not weight. Some people may like the loud thud of a magazine when you drop it on the table, but in terms of raw material utilisation, the extra weight is unnecessary. This is a great example of how eco-design helps print stay competitive,” says Varvemaa.

Think big, think differently

Other new paper launches such as UPM Impresse and UPM ReCat are similarly the fruit of a paradigm-challenger mindset. “We asked ourselves why couldn’t we produce a beautiful, high-bulk uncoated product for rotogravure and HSWO printing, or a high-bright magazine product made from recycled fibre. Just because it hasn’t been done in the past doesn’t mean it couldn’t, shouldn’t or wouldn’t be done in the future.”

For many years now, UPM has been practicing what Bousios is preaching in the field of sidestreams and the circular economy. “A beautiful example is the Cinerit business from our Central European mills, which utilises ash from deinking sludge incineration as a soil stabiliser,” says Varvemaa.

“It’s all about changing the way we think. Instead of getting rid of ‘waste’ the cheapest possible way, we critically review the material and energy streams of our processes, and utilise everything either in our own processes or in some other business as raw material,” explains Varvemaa.

Besides promoting a zero-emission, zero-waste society, harnessing of sidestreams promises to open up many business opportunities as soon the technologies mature a bit further, predicts Varvemaa.

He believes the research done at UPM will benefit the entire industry. “We truly believe the bio-based economy is the winner of tomorrow. We hope to show that the key to renewal in a mature industry is thinking big and thinking differently.”

Field of futurists

Varvemaa’s optimism is shared by up-and-coming Finnish researchers who are developing new applications and looking to build careers in the paper industry.

One young pacesetter is Jonna Kuusisto, who is currently completing her doctoral thesis for the Department of Forest Product Technology at Helsinki’s Aalto University. She, along with Bousios, was one of twelve young researchers selected to present their work at the CEPI European Paper Week last autumn.

Kuusisto is developing a self-bonding microcomposite material that integrates calcium carbonate and starch. The new composite replaces some of the fibre raw material used in paper manufacturing.

“It improves the properties of the paper, gives it extra strength and improves the cost structure. We are also investigating other applications such as using the composite in coatings and as an additive in board manufacturing,” Kuusisto says.

As soon as her thesis is finished, Kuusisto plans to launch a career in corporate R&D. “Universities and conferences are packed with enthusiastic students who are coming up with great new ideas and innovations. I’m convinced that paper has a bright future.”

Engaging young talent

Ditto to that, says Johanna Järvinen, another Aalto University student who is finishing her Master’s thesis for the Department of Forest Products Technology.

“I see the forest industry as an extremely interesting and visionary field. Paper and fibre products will always be needed everywhere, so I’m confident the industry’s future is secure, especially with new opportunities emerging through research into new products such as nanocellulose and microfibrils,” she says.

Whereas in the past, Finnish forest industry students traditionally came from old mill towns, nowadays they come from bigger cities and take a keener interest in issues such as the environment, sustainability and biochemicals, notes Järvinen.

“Renewable materials, product recyclability and efficient forest management are all important focus areas at the heart of today’s forest industry."

Insider view

Järvinen has worked as a young professional at UPM for about a year now, which has offered a variety of insider perspectives on the industry.

She started her UPM career in 2012 at the Fray Bentos pulp mill in Uruguay as part of the Bioforce programme. She also gained experience working in UPM’s sales office in Shanghai and at CEPI’s office in Brussels, where she learned about the organisation and how it represents the forest industry in Europe.

There are plenty of career opportunities in the industry, but Järvinen emphasises that more young people should be encouraged to engage in industry networks. In the future, she sees herself working in a customer interface role in the paper and pulp industry.

“There’s a massive amount of knowledge and expertise in the paper industry, and we need also to bring new people into the field. By combining the views of seasoned experts with the ideas of young researchers and students, we can leverage ideas and innovations that can benefit the whole industry.”

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Text: Silja Kudel, Vesa Puoskari

Photography: UPM, Courtesy of the interviewees