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Sustana’s Yardley Talks Tricks of Transforming Recycled Paper to Quality Products

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Sustana has been riding the waves of the sustainable fibers and paper market for some time. Renée Yardley, Sustana’s senior vice president of Sales and Marketing, shares insight on trends, particularly this past year, and projections for the future. 

Sustana has been riding the waves of the sustainable fibers and paper market for some time.  Renée Yardley, Sustana’s senior vice president of Sales and Marketing, shares insight on trends, particularly this past year, and projections for the future.  She explains where sorting facilities are struggling and how AI could help; how the demand for wastepaper is impacting mills and recyclers; and she gives an inside glimpse of Sustana’s work on its way to zero waste.

Waste360: Tell us about Sustana’s use of biogas to power its mills

Yardley: Since 2004, the main thermal energy source for Rolland (owned by Sustana) has been biogas.

Methane is captured from decomposing organic waste in a nearby landfill to prevent its release into the air. It is purified, compressed and then transported in a dedicated 8-mile pipeline to fulfill 93% of our paper mill’s thermal energy needs. The use of biogas reduces our CO2 emissions by 70,000 tons annually. 

Waste360: What makes your fiber sustainable, and do you have life cycle analysis figures to support this?

Yardley: Our main source of raw material is recovered paper materials used to manufacture recycled fiber made by Sustana Fiber and used in our Rolland sustainable recycled paper. By sourcing alternative fiber from recovered recycled paper materials, we are addressing the problem of landfills, pollution, and waste generated. This ensures a minimal impact to the area’s biodiversity, environment, and natural resources.

We conducted a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to assess and manage the footprint of our product and demonstrate the impact on climate change, biodiversity, and water quality. With respect to biodiversity, only virgin fiber has an impact. We source our fiber from the urban forest. Recycled fibers don’t require the extraction of virgin fibers where mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles thrive. Rolland’s Enviro line has greenhouse gas emissions that are 62% lower than virgin paper and in regard to water quality, Rolland Enviro contributes to freshwater eutrophication 76% less than virgin paper.

Rather than constantly using fresh water, our paper mill recirculates every drop 30 times and uses six times less water than the industry average. With less energy needed to heat the water, this circular process contributes to our low environmental footprint. Our water treatment equipment ensures operations with clean water in and clean water out.

Waste360: What’s driving the spike in demand for paper; how is it impacting mills; and what has it meant for wastepaper markets?

Yardley: The pandemic took people out of the office setting and sent them home to work. Less people in the office means less wastepaper produced. Less wastepaper means mills either need to expand their buying radius, forcing them to go further out to procure the needed paper to run, or mills need to look for alternative wastepaper grades they don’t traditionally use.

The bigger issue caused by the lack of wastepaper availability is around cost. The reduced amount of wastepaper means that mills are competing for the same available feedstock and that demand is driving costs up. Innovation in recycling alternative sources of fiber, such as paper cups and aseptic and gable top containers, is key.

A challenge with recycling is sorting the waste. The recycling movement has gained momentum but people still need to learn how to do it. Sorting facilities also need help; by adding robots driven by AI, the waste could be sorted automatically, and the rate of recycling could increase.

The circular economy is built on the notion that the life cycle of materials and resources that have already served a purpose for end users can be preserved and extended. At Sustana Fiber, we work to bring fiber full circle with sustainable innovation. Every year, we recycle enough paper to reduce landfill space by over 1 million cubic yards. Our focus is to supply sustainable 100 percent recycled fiber that can be used to make tissue, printing and writing papers, and food and beverage packaging. 

Waste360: What’s the problem with composting materials made from pulp and what do you see as a better alternative?

Yardley: We see wastepaper and paper cups as valuable resources. If materials made from wood pulp such as coffee cups, plates, and paper are composted, these products can only become fertilizer and can only be repurposed once, which limits the many potential useful lives the material can have. 

If paper, coffee cups, and cartons are sent to a recycling facility, the fiber recovered can be sent to a variety of end-use markets, including tissue, printing and writing, and direct food grade applications. As a manufacturing process it is very efficient, as paper products can be recycled many times, giving fiber and paper-based products countless useful lives. This ultimately mitigates the impact on the environment and climate change.

At Sustana, transforming recycled paper into high-quality products is the essence of our business. Both of our Sustana Fiber facilities process 2.2 million pounds of recycled paper every day. We are equipped to take on something that could be composted only once and make it into a useful product again and again, like turning takeout coffee cups into magazines and then into packaging.

Waste360: What are some “recipes” that enable Sustana to drastically cut water use, and that have gotten you so close to your zero-waste goal?

Yardley: Our process uses fewer input materials and has less waste built in, which is why we are able to bring fiber products full circle with sustainable innovation.

Our EnviroLife pulp uses nine times less water than virgin kraft pulp. An employee initiative improved this process on a hot summer day at the De Pere site. A mill employee watched as beads of condensation built up around sweating filtrate pipes and it sparked an idea. He realized that every drop of water in those pipes — in an area we want to keep warm — could be diverted to equipment that needs cooling. A few quick pipe changes later, that water was being repurposed, reducing freshwater consumption by eight percent per ton of fibers processed at the mill. It also cut down on the amount of steam needed for the bleaching stage, saving natural gas. According to our data, the effort reduced therm usage by 1,100 therms per day.

We work to make every fiber matter.  Our goal is to be a zero waste facility. Fibers that can no longer be recycled, called short fibers or fines, are diverted from production, and collected for alternative uses such as animal bedding, land framing, or grass seed coating.  These alternative uses of our fiber carry our efforts 98.5 to 99 percent to our zero-waste goal.

At Sustana Fiber, we promote and apply sustainable manufacturing and business practices to deliver premium sustainable recycled fiber for a broad range of paper, tissue, and food packaging products. We achieve this with state-of-the-art, proprietary processes developed to minimize water usage, energy usage, and waste.

Waste360: What is entailed in using virgin fibers in manufacturing and describe its environmental impact.

Yardley: Virgin fiber requires the transformation and use of land for intensive forestry. Approximately 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions are the result of deforestation and forest degradation according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Forests play a vital role in mitigating climate change. They act as a “carbon sink,” meaning they soak up and store caron dioxide that would otherwise remain in the atmosphere. Impacts for the acidification and terrestrial eutrophication indicators are mostly attributable to higher fossil fuel consumption to produce virgin kraft pulp.

Our main source of raw material is recovered paper materials from the “urban forest.” Every year, Sustana Fiber recycles enough paper to save four million trees. 

Waste360: What trends do you anticipate in sustainability practices of paper companies moving forward? What are you seeing so far in 2022?

Yardley: Our customers are focusing on circularity, and we are working with them as a key player in the supply chain. There are a number of pilot projects underway.

Unfortunately, at this time we are under NDAs, but will announce these projects as soon as we are able. But I can say the pilots are all focused on circularity in paper products, and we look forward to bringing them to fruition in 2022. 

Waste360: What kind of year was 2021 for paper mills and recyclers? What are you seeing so far this year, and what do you anticipate moving forward?

Yardley: As customers focused on sustainable supply chains, there was greater interest in the recycled paper space, which increased demand for the products. In the search for alternatives to plastic, there was a lot of interest in replacing plastic with fiber-based products. We expect this trend to continue. 

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