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Paper for Sustainability

From Separate Collection to Industry

When it comes to paper for sustainability, we usually think of a political-administrative protocol, an agreement between industrial realities and environmental associations, or a statement of intent. But it's not just that. Separate collection of paper is essential to trigger circular economy processes, "where the value of products, materials, and resources is maintained in the economy for as long as possible. All outputs of a process are inputs for another, and therefore moving towards a circular economy involves reducing the consumption of virgin materials and reducing waste generation" (Bellagio Declaration, 2020).

Strategic Role in Circular Economy

Assocarta and Legambiente have appealed to the government in the pages of a newspaper so that separate collections of paper are considered essential in waste management for the development of the Italian circular economy.

"The paper and transformation industry continues to produce – in service of the country – packaging for food and medicines, sanitary and hygiene papers, papers for special and medical uses, as well as for culture and information," write the two associations. "But the paper industry plays a strategic role in the country's circular economy: every year, more than 5 million tons are recycled, and from Italian plants (10 tons per minute), paper recycling now exceeds 80%. With investments nearing completion that will expand recycling capacity, the Italian paper industry effectively and daily realizes the circular economy in our country."

For this reason, Assocarta and Legambiente together "thank the citizens, municipalities, and companies that contribute to the separate collection of paper, part of the Italian circular economy."

From Paper Production to Alternative Products

For some industrial realities, especially in northern Europe, there is a real revolution of their assets underway, a complete reinvention of the production line. This usually happens when a product loses value or the production process becomes more complicated and expensive than the final product. The main problem is represented by the internet. Much of the paper production has been interrupted because the web has replaced many information outlets, making the printing of content unnecessary and superfluous. Although recent research made in the UK suggests that the market is slowly returning to paper, this is the triggering factor pushing paper-working companies to transform their cellulose factories into derivatives factories such as glue, biofuels, and carbon fiber for aircraft and wind turbines.

New Uses for Cellulose

As an alternative to paper production, a new generation of low-consumption cellulose pulp factories is on the horizon. The growing global demand for fossil-free materials also contributes to stimulating innovation, and big names like Stora Enso, UPM-Kymmene, Metsa Group, SCA, and Holmen are on the hunt for new and profitable uses for cellulose. Much of the research is in an embryonic phase, and many of these companies have not yet decided which markets to dedicate themselves to. But after years of painful restructuring, some investors are beginning to see profit prospects in the sector.

A Potentially Infinite Market

"If these companies manage to develop new materials to replace those based on fossil fuels, the market will be practically infinite," said Sasja Beslik, head of Nordea's sustainable finance branch, one of the leading financial groups in northern Europe and among the main shareholders of Stora Enso. Stora Enso, a Finnish-Swedish company operating globally in the production of paper and cellulose pulp, is working on an interesting material: kraft lignin – a refined version of lignin, a substance that contains at least a quarter of wood and binds the tree fibers together.

Companies Racing to Innovate

Despite Europe experiencing a 25% decline in paper demand over the last decade, this still remains a key sector for the export of Nordic countries, which have managed to convert businesses by directing them towards other segments such as packaging and hygiene products. Seeing potential in the alternative uses of their timber, companies that have traditionally invested relatively little money in research are now seeking to increase spending on innovation, with the goal of further diversifying.

An in-depth analysis of research and innovation in paper material and its cellulose-based derivatives in the field of architecture and design can be found in the article Il futuro dell’architettura e design in carta – Studi e progetti all’insegna di innovazione e sostenibilità”.

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