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As manager of one of Europe’s largest recycled paper mills, Jo Cox is turning his nearly zero waste Netherlands facility into the linchpin of a bio-based industrial economy
Walk around Smurfit Kappa’s Roermond paper mill in the Netherlands, and it is difficult to believe that the pulp and paper industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters, spewing hazardous chemicals into waterways, earth and land -- not to mention climate-change inducing CO2 as one of Europe’s most intensive users of energy.
As he escorts a group of journalists around his surgically clean plant, Jo Cox, the mill’s ebullient managing director, boasts that the water the mill sends back into the nearby river Maas is cleaner than what it withdraws to make its recycled cardboard – a claim scarcely believable to someone who grew up in Quebec, the heart of Canada’s pulp and paper industry.
But listening to Cox, who is 64, speak animatedly about the mill’s efforts to lead Europe’s circular economy, it is clear that clean water is just one of the benefits when those principles are pursued with enough intent, rigour and – in Cox’s case at least – passion.
Cox says Roermond, one of the largest recycled paper mills in Europe, is also the most efficient: using 3.7m3 of water and 5.65GJ of energy to produce a ton of paper. This compares with 5.4m3 of water and 6.4GJ in the average European recycled paper mill. “We are energy-intensive, but for units of energy needed to produce one ton of paper we are leading the pack in Europe, and possibly the rest of the world,” Cox says.
But the most extraordinary statistic is that Roermond produces less than 1kg of solid waste for every ton of paper it produces, compared to 32kg at its recycled paper competitors. This reflects its success in closing the loops in its processes, both upstream and down, building what Cox describes as a “two-way bridge” of sharing waste streams with other businesses and customers. The mill says it has found valuable and useful applications for 99.5% of its raw materials. And it is working hard to drive out even that vestigial amount of waste.
“Our objective is to grow in the most climate-neutral way, and to support and shape the bio-based economy,” says Cox, who has been at the mill for 15 years. He wants the mill to be at the forefront of what he calls the third industrial revolution. “We can no longer afford the linear economy. It will kill our future if we continue. The ecosystem is circular and built on numerous loops. We can take inspiration from nature and try to close loops in an efficient way.”
Water is Roermond’s biggest input, with 90,000 litres of water required an hour at full steam. But that water also provides the plant with a lot of added value before it is restored to the river: anaerobic digesters in the water treatment plant generate biogas to help heat the plant; the mill also sell off surplus bacteria globally and sulphur to local farmers for fertiliser. The remaining lime sludge, he says, is used as a raw material in its paper-making instead of going to landfill.
Like seven of Smurfit Kappa’s 36 mills worldwide, Roermond does not use virgin wood fibres. Instead it is reliant for feedstock on daily deliveries of 120 truckloads of recovered paper, sourced in the Netherlands and nearby Germany. Its biggest waste headache is the plastics, metal, wood and sand impurities that have to be removed from the recovered paper.
But, as with water, Cox sees all the waste this recovered paper generates as a valuable resource. The mother lode is Rofire, the fuel pellets Smurf Kappa developed with Dutch chemical giant DSM from its plastic waste after extracting harmful PVCs. Each week the mill produces 12 truckloads of this fuel source, which has a heating value somewhere between lignite and black coal, which it sells to lime kilns and the cement industry. “Our customers avoided 13,000 tons of black coal avoiding 20,000 tonnes of CO2 last year. That’s a really big number.”
It has also saved Smurfit Kappa some big numbers in landfill fees. “Before we did that, we had 30,000 tons of wet disposal, which went to landfill. Today the price to get rid of that is €80 per ton. And we earn money for Rofire,” Cox says.
Most managers might decide “circular economy job done” after such an overwhelmingly win-win outcome, but not Cox. And this is where the intent and passion really kicks in. The mill has found customers for a stream of fine textile and hair waste, removed from recovered paper in the final screening, including a tulip grower who spreads it over his fields to prevent fertiliser run-off.
It is also striving to reduce its use of recovered paper by using the waste streams of other companies in this industrial heartland near Rotterdam. One example is the calcium carbonate that a nearby toilet paper producer has to dispose of. “We get 12,000 tons of it as a sidestream per year and we use it to replace 6,000 tons of recovered paper. The beauty of it is that what was once called waste is now a primary material,” Cox enthuses. “That’s the ultimate solution: to use it as high as possible in the cycle and start again in a new loop. We also deliver packaging material to that same mill, so the loop is closed on that side.”
Another customer provides starch waste from the potato industry, which it uses in its paper recipe, while a baby food manufacturer, which has to remove phosphoric acid from its products, provides this increasingly rare chemical to Roermond for use in its water treatment plant. Then there is its more experimental use of tomato stems provided by a local tomato grower.
“We produce boxes using 10% tomato stems for a tomato grower, but those fibres are too expensive today for us,” Cox says. “ We need to develop it further [with other companies]. To make it financially feasible we have to do cascading. In the tomato stem there are substances in it to protect it from diseases, that have higher value than for making paper.”
This is what Cox means about taking a biorefinery approach, working with other companies and sectors to make the most efficient use of the planet’s finite resources.
“That’s the way we have to learn to think and work together across the sectors. Paper won’t solve the problem [of resource scarcity], nor will the chemical industry or agriculture: we have to work together. If we have the right cascading system and the right amount of money then we can solve the problem.”
One priority for Cox is to find a use for that remaining 1kg of solid waste per ton of paper, mainly sand and glass, that it has to send to landfill. For this he is speaking to the construction industry. “We will solve that in the coming two years,” he vows, and none of the assembled journalists doubts him.
Another is finding a more high-value use for the residual lime sludge the mill produces than using it as a filler. Lime sludge is mostly composed of cellulose, which is used in polyethylene furanoate, or PEF, a bio-based alternative to PET bottles. “We are talking to a company about using our cellulose for new PEF bottles for Coca-Cola,” he says.
In a riposte to those companies that have latched onto “circular economy” as the latest hat on which to hang their sustainability credentials, Cox describes the mill’s target of being part of a circular economy by 2035 as optimistic.
“There’s still a long way to go, because not everyone is convinced it is the business model of the future,” he says. “Sometimes you are swimming against the stream. You need endurance to show what is possible. It requires a fundamental reorientation in your thinking. It took us a few years to learn it, but at the end of the day we believe in the beauty of our dream of the circular economy. And that is what you need.”
Tony Smurfit, CEO of Smurfit Kappa is speaking at Responsible Business Summit Europe in June, alongside CEOs from the likes of: Dell, Grundfos, PRI, UN Global Compact Network, Alecta and many more. Click here for more information.
This is part of our circular economy briefing. See also:
climate green chemistry DSM bio-plastics circular economy coca-cola biogas recycling