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Paper has many uses – Print21 magazine article

Friday, 23 July 2010
By Print 21 Online Article

Paper companies faced with declining markets for their traditional products are looking at new ways to use their expertise as well as developing potentially game-changing technology based on pulp, paper and their by-products. Tony Duncan examines the latest developments currently in the pipeline.

The unrelenting pressure of competition requires a continuous effort by any business to remain relevant to its customers – and profitable.
And some have done this extraordinarily well.

It is invigorating to watch some of the initiatives being undertaken by paper suppliers, both here and overseas, to leverage competencies into new business opportunities. Some are developing horizontally, leveraging expertise in logistics to look for new distribution opportunities, and others are taking a more vertical route through the addition of new products (and services) to supply current markets. Neither route should be criticised and, indeed, these are companies showing considerable courage in challenging their own traditions and overcoming internal myopia to maintain business sustainability in the face of declining consumption.

One example of combining industry experience with new technology to develop new products for the industry (and an improved environmental outcome) is Paper to Paper’s new Online Waste Management software <> which provides companies with a more transparent and economical way to manage a range of wastes – including paper, plastics and e-waste. The system has been designed to provide companies (including printers) with a clear audit trail of their waste, while providing a more accurate register of waste types and volumes – and hopefully improved prices for wastes. It is also a potential value-add for printers to offer their customers, similar to an initiative from a UK paper merchant whereby it provides a collection and recycling service to its customers <>.

What to do with paper
Which leads to one of the ongoing questions about paper recovery and recycling – is there anything else that can be done with recovered fibre other than turn it into paper? And the short answer is not at the moment – not in quantities which would have a meaningful effect on the tonnages available.

Although it is used as an energy feedstock in limited tonnages, that is not a major option in Australia currently. Kitty litter and other opportunities also help demand but remain relatively small uses. Fortunately there are large, though cyclical, markets for our recovered fibre north of Australia which have driven exports of recovered paper from 350,000 tonnes six or so years ago to nearly 1.4 million tonnes per annum today.

The longer answer though is more complex and positive – and includes cellulose and trees in a wider sense.

Cellulose – whether from a tree or from waste paper – is an interesting and valuable molecule. When ‘extracted’ from trees, there is an interesting by-product called lignin of which it is said you can make anything except money. Lignin is a high quality (renewable) bio-fuel often used as a fuel in paper mills to fire boilers etc, and considerable research is underway looking at developing specialty chemicals from lignin to replace fossil crude-based products.

Cellulose itself is a (renewable) long-chain polysaccharide with a vast array of current and future uses and, as always, these come down to economics and technology. The current array of uses include guncotton, Rayon, cellophane and includes use in some foods. Its major use is still as a structural material (timber) and communications medium (paper), but there are some interesting technologies on the horizon.

Selling cellulose
The opportunity for cellulose in economic terms goes from cheap (burn as a fuel) to very expensive (as a base feedstock for pharmaceutical drugs). The difference in selling price between these two extremes is about a factor of ten million (from $100 per tonne to $1,000 per gram), although the market sizes are correspondingly inverse. However, new technologies being developed here and elsewhere point to some serious opportunities to replace fossil fuel-based products with this renewable and generally recyclable resource.

An obvious one is liquid fuels where cellulosic ethanol is a known technology. There is at least one plant underway in Australia. As we move forward, however, the value hierarchy of products from cellulose is becoming more and more complex. While liquid fuels are a real opportunity, selling prices are less than most paper products. It remains an opportunity though for forestry/cellulose feedstocks that are unsuitable for the paper or timber processes.

At the other extreme, some of the pharmaceutical products (eg levoglucosenone) sourced from cellulose sell at wonderful prices, but no paper mill making several hundred thousand tonnes or more of paper per year is likely to invest in a manufacturing process to make a few kilos or maybe a tonne of product. There are sweet spots in the middle of this continuum which are products that have scale, growth opportunities and reasonable returns. If you want to explore one area more fully, check out a product relatively easily produced from trees/cellulose called levulinic acid; the vast range of products which can be developed from it is extraordinary, from plastics to synthetic rubber, a very good diesel extender, even treating skin cancers.

And these are real opportunities, not blue skies airy-fairy nonsense. A number of pulp and paper manufacturers have been working on cellulose-derived products for several years and have considerable resources invested in non-paper products. The move from a hydrocarbon to carbohydrate economy is real and, in many cases, cellulose-based. (In Sweden, bio-energy has a greater share of energy use than oil.)

But will these initiatives help the printing industry? Probably no more than inkjet rapid prototyping. However, as indicated in an earlier article, continuous innovation is the key and there are lessons to be learnt from external but adjacent industries.

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