International Paper Sets Goal for Zero Waste

International Paper waste managementAs part of Triple Pundit’s sponsored series with International Paper, last week we had a chance to pick the brains of Jeff Shumaker, the company’s Manager of Regulatory Affairs, and now we get to share some of his insights into waste management with you. IP has set a medium-term waste management goal, with the aim of reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills by 30 percent by 2020.

Modern papermaking faces a particular set of waste stream challenges, but given the waste management progress documented by other manufacturers the goal of 30 percent seems reasonable. However, Shumaker also articulated a pathway for his company — and perhaps yours — to achieve a much more ambitious goal of achieving zero manufacturing waste.

The road to zero waste: It’s all about the fiber

The aggressive goal of zero waste came up at the end of our conversation, so let’s backtrack a bit to the beginning.

Shumaker started off by emphasizing that in the modern papermaking business, it’s all about the fiber, which in the case of IP is derived principally from the southern pine and hardwood species.

The ability to separate usable fibers from the rest of the tree with the greatest possible efficiency is clearly a bottom-line goal. For IP it is also a moving goal, as new technologies and new strategies arise to provide new opportunities for making the process more efficient.

Here’s how Shumaker describes the “atmosphere of continuing improvement” that the company has adopted:

We’ve permeated our corporate culture with manufacturing excellence …We are constantly re-evaluating individual processes and parts of processes to reduce the amount of fiber that is lost.

Manufacturing excellence

The use of the phrase “manufacturing excellence” is no accident, and it’s worth emphasizing again that what Shumaker is talking about is an approach to manufacturing that involves more than simply switching on the machines in the morning and oiling them up every now and then.

In addition to ongoing R&D, manufacturing excellence refers to continual, systematic evaluation using analytic, interactive tools. That adds up to a significant, ongoing investment in process improvement.

The emphasis on analytic tools won’t surprise those of you who are familiar with the Green Button initiative, a nationwide public-private partnership with utility companies and other stakeholders. Green Button is aimed at providing building owners and managers with standardized data-based tools for improving energy efficiency.

Managing out waste

As for the specifics, IP has several interlocking areas of focus for waste management.

Papermaking involves water, and one significant waste stream is the “sludge” of solids, including uncaptured fiber, left over from treating a mill’s wastewater. The current practice is to dispose mill sludge in landfills. Since the cost of landfill disposal is high and growing, there is a direct incentive to find new ways to capture more usable fiber before it gets into the wastewater stream.

Another area is chip consistency, which is pretty much what it sounds like: achieving a uniform size at the initial stage of the process, when raw timber is milled into chips.

That might not seem like a particular area of concern, but keep in mind that separating fiber from wood is both a chemical and a mechanical process. Having chips of a uniform size helps to ensure a more efficient use of chemicals, energy and time. The end result is the ability to use more fiber in paper that otherwise goes back to the wastewater area.

Another area of focus is energy. This is where IP leverages the essential character of its business, which revolves around biomass.

The plus side is that the bark and lignin (the tough “glue” of wood cells that can’t be used for paper) are reclaimed as biomass for fuel, which for IP produces much of the steam and electricity used at a mill.

The downside is that even the most efficient biomass-to-energy operation yields ash, which accounts for another major waste stream for IP.

On the other hand, the mineral-rich biomass ash also provides the company with a substantial opportunity for sustainable disposal, in the form of land application as described by Shumaker:

When it’s properly managed and carefully considered, it’s natural to get it back into a field, or use it to grow grass.

In that regard, it’s worth noting that the land-based disposal opportunity will vary depending on regional agriculture. One ideal example cited by Jeff is Brazil, where IP sources its fiber mainly from eucalyptus plantations. Almost all of the waste from the company’s two major mills in Brazil is reclaimed to enhance soil at those same plantations.

Shumaker also noted that waste stream ash also contains minerals that could make it useful as an additive in building materials including cement and bricks.

To integrate, or not to integrate

In our conversation, Jeff also raised an interesting issue for sustainability and the supply chain.

IP was historically a more vertically-integrated company, with substantial interests in the forestry end as well as in the paper manufacturing end.

By focusing more closely on its mills, IP has been able to achieve a sharper focus on its manufacturing process and its sustainability goals as a paper manufacturer foremost.

A parallel example would be Levi Strauss & Co., which has raised the benchmark for corporate social responsibility by focusing on clothing manufacturing, while taking steps to bring its supply chain into line with its goals.

Similarly, IP’s aspirational goal of zero waste goal has enabled it to stake out a leadership position. That could prove to be a powerful motivation to leverage motivation by its supply chain, especially by providing a best practices model for the manufacturing excellence concept of continuous investment in process improvements.

[Image (cropped): Courtesy of International Paper]

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Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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