PULP AND PAPER
Europe is the world’s second-largest producer of pulp and paper, manufacturing 37 million tonnes of pulp and 100 million tonnes of paper articles, which represents about a quarter of the world’s production (The Confederation of European Paper Industries, 2021). The pulp and paper sector is the EU’s second-largest forest-based sector, after woodworking. Paper is produced using pulp, a soft and moist material that is made of cellulose from materials such as wood, plants and recycled paper. The pulp can be obtained using chemicals or by grinding the raw material and mixing it with water. The pulp can be combined with water and chemicals; and is then flattened, dried and cut into sheets and rolls, creating paper. Paper is used for various purposes, including writing, printing, packaging, and sanitary functions (World Paper Mill, 2019).
About 93% of raw materials used for pulp and paper production come from trees, with one tree being able to produce 8000 sheets of paper (Jiang et al., 2021). The most commonly used feedstocks for the pulp and paper sector are recycled paper and wood fibres, as well as alternative fibres, which originate from cellulose-containing crops and plants, such as cotton, bamboo, linen, bagasse, and bast fibres. As such, the industry is already largely bio-based, as its main raw materials are wood and alternative fibres from cellulose-containing crops and plants. However, 12% of the sector’s inputs consist of non-fibrous materials, such as starches, clays and calcium carbonate, which are used as coatings and fillers. There are also various chemicals used in the production processes, and many paper articles contain ink or other additives and fillers (The Confederation of European Paper Industries, 2021).
One of the main feedstocks used in the sector are recycled fibres. The recycling rate of paper in Europe is quite high and reached 71.4% in 2021 (European Paper Recycling Council, 2022). Recycled fibres account for about half of the raw materials used for paper products in Europe (Finnish Forest Industries, 2021). About half of the paper produced in the EU is used as packaging materials, such as cardboard. In 2020, paper fibres were recycled 3.8 times on average in Europe, while the global average was 2.4 times (Two Sides, 2021).
Figure 1, Overview of EU pulp and paper sector, own image.
The EU consisted of 1820 pulp and paper companies in 2020, that employed around 160,000 people. In the same year, the EU pulp and paper sector had a turnover of 74 billion euros. As such, the pulp and paper sector had a share of about 0.45% of the EU’s GDP. The manufacturing of paperboard and paper articles had a turnover of 104 billion euros in the same year. The EU consists of 16,400 manufacturers of paperboard and paper articles, which employ a little under half a million people (Eurostat, 2023). Together, the production of pulp and paper, as well as paper articles account for 1.2% of the EU’s GDP. The sector is dominated by large enterprises. In the EU, there are several large pulp and paper companies such as Stora Enso, UPM, SCA and Smurfit Kappa (The Confederation of European Paper Industries, 2021).
The biggest producers of pulp in the EU are Sweden and Finland, which together produced about half of Europe’s total pulp production of 45.7 million tonnes in 2021. Europe produces about a quarter (25.6%) of the world’s pulp. Germany is the EU’s biggest producer of paper and paperboard, as it produced almost a quarter of the EU’s total production of 104 million tonnes in 2021. The EU also accounted for about a quarter of the world’s production of paper and paperboard, as it produced 26% of the world’s 398.5 million tonnes in 2021.
The main source of fibres for pulp and paper products are forestry products, mainly logs from trees, also known as roundwood. The roundwood consists of bark, cellulose fibres, hemicellulose, lignin and extractives. The bark protects the fibres of the log, which are held together by the lignin. The pulping process aims at extracting these fibres by removing the lignin. Pulp mills have different chemical and mechanical processes in order to extract these fibres (Casey, 2017). In mechanical pulping, fibres are mechanically removed, usually by grinding the material. In chemical pulping, the lignin which is holding the fibres together is broken down and dissolved using certain chemicals (Olson, n.d.). The pulp can then be mixed with water and chemicals, flattened, dried and cut into sheets and rolls to create paper. The paper can be further processed to create paper articles such as cardboard, toilet paper, and graphic paper such as newspapers (World Paper Mill, 2019). The used paper products can then be recycled by re-pulping and de-inking the recovered fibres to create new paper products. The pulping process also gives various by-products, such as black liquor, crude sulfate turpentine, tall oil and lignin. The main purpose of pulping is the separation of as much lignin as possible, as it reduces the quality of the paper. Currently, about 98% of the lignin produced in the pulp and paper sector is used for combustion heating or power generation, while less than 2% is used for other applications (Yao, et al., 2022). Lignin can be extracted and used for uses such as in asphalt, or used as vanillin, a binder, dispersant, dye, adhesive or bio-oil. Lignin is, after cellulose, the most abundant biopolymer on earth. The extraction and application of lignin will be examined in the ALIGNED project.
Figure 2, Pulp and paper production process, own image.
The traditional pulp and paper facilities are shifting towards multi-output biorefineries, where bioenergy, biomaterials and biochemicals are simultaneously produced. These biorefineries produce bio-based products such as man-made cellulosic fibres, biodiesel, bio-naphtha, lignosulphonate and tall oil products. The share of emerging bio-based products as a part of the EU’s pulp and paper sector’s turnover is currently around 3% but is expected to be substantially larger in the future (Lombard, 2021). This makes it important to assess the possible extraction methods and applications of pulping by-products, such as lignin.
Globally, an estimated 40% of harvested wood is used to manufacture paper. The production of pulp and paper has been linked with cases of deforestation and forest degradation, which has various social, economic and environmental impacts. In the paper production process, various chemicals are used which can lead to large amounts of toxic wastewater being released into the environment and the release of harmful gases into the atmosphere (Jiang et al., 2021). The sector is one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters among the manufacturing industries and the production of paper is also a very energy-intensive process. However, the pulp and paper sector is also the largest industrial consumer of renewable energy in the EU, as 60% of the sector’s energy needs was supplied by renewable sources in 2020 (AFRY, 2022).
Figure 3, Environmental sustainability of the EU pulp and paper sector, own image.
Various practices focus on the environmental sustainability of forests and pulp and paper products. This includes EU policies and regulations, as well as sustainability standards. Sustainable forest management is of high importance to the EU pulp and paper sector, since the sector relies on the long-term stability of European forests and their resilience to climate change, as this affects the overall quality and quantity of wood production (European Confederation of Woodworking Industries, 2021). Besides the legal requirements, such as the EU’s policies against illegal harvesting, many buyers ask for sustainable forest management certifications and for premium and niche markets, specific ISO norms could be involved. The two main sustainable forest management certifications are the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). Both certifications aim at creating and implementing sustainable forest policies to save and protect forests against destruction. The certifications both rest on the same three pillars: the social, economic and environmental impacts of wood production (Michal, et al., 2019).
In order to assess the environmental impact of materials, products and services, a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) can be used. LCAs can be used in the decision-making process towards sustainability and can be applied to a wide range of sectors, including the pulp and paper sector. The EU Horizon Europe ALIGNED project looks at LCA methodology and aims at improving, harmonizing and aligning LCA assessment methods in the bio-based sector.
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