Working Toward a Closed-Loop Future

Tucked along the Rivière du Nord less than 30 miles northwest of Montreal is the suburban town of Saint-Jérôme, home of the only paper mill in North America fueled mainly by biogas energy from a local landfill. The mill is operated by Rolland, Inc., and produces recycled papers with what parent company Sustana calls “the industry’s smallest environmental footprint.” According to Sustana Group Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing Renée Yardley, the focus on sustainability is part of the company’s DNA.

Sustana Group Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing Renée Yardley.

“As a forest products company, we’re focused on natural resources; environmental stewardship is extremely important to the entire industry. As a recycled fiber and recycled paper company, we’re recycling those resources, and we also need natural resources to enter the value chain to continue the cycle.

“But sustainability goes beyond environmental performance,” she continues. “In the fall of 2018, we finished our Sustainability Plan, and we’ve moved beyond simply focusing on ‘the environment.’ We have very specific objectives. Of course the environment is part of the plan, but we also address the social aspect, focusing on our employees and the community; and the circular value chain, an area where we believe we can have a big impact.”

Yardley has more than two decades of experience with global organizations including Tembec, CCM, and General Motors. With about 17 years direct experience in the pulp and paper industry, she has seen a change over that time from strictly forest-focused ideas of sustainability to a movement that is today being driven by customers. This is something the company considered when forming its Sustainability Plan.

A Rolland employee prepares bales of dried fiber to be loaded into the paper machine pulper.

“You can’t focus on everything, right? So we looked at the different stakeholders and considered where we could have the greatest impact. Then we put goals in place for that.”

For example, employee health and safety is a concern for management and employees, so a stated goal in the Sustainability Plan is to reduce the accident rate to zero by 2030. Within the community, the company does educational outreach; the goal is to “foster thriving local communities in areas of operation by donating 1 percent of profits to initiatives that support education, youth programs, and environmental conservation initiatives.”

“Because we are a business, everyone assumes that ROI is strictly financial. At one forum, we had a long discussion about how to push sustainability initiatives through, because the assumption is that sustainability is going to cost more. That is not necessarily the case,” she says. “You need to make sure you do a strong analysis in the beginning to really show the payback cycle, the overall impact, and the costs of different initiatives. The measure of success for each program is going to be different. You need to define what ‘success’ is going to be as you set your goal.”

Of course, business profitability and sustainability are interlinked; but true sustainability is not about short-term gain—it’s about long-term viability, says Yardley. “If we’re not focusing on the future, we’re not going to be around to affect it. That’s why our Sustainability Plan addresses all three critical elements: environmental, social, and governance. All of those work together. It’s about the long-term health of both the company and the industry.”

As Sustana Group’s paper manufacturing arm, Rolland has a vested interest in fiber sustainability and fiber security. Rolland collects waste paper in Quebec, Ontario, and the Northeastern United States. It sends the waste paper to its deinking plant in Breakeyville, where it is transformed into pulp bales that are sent to the Saint-Jérôme plant to produce high-quality fine papers; one line is 30 percent recycled, the other 100 percent recycled.

Rolland’s production is manufactured to the highest environmental standards, using renewable energy and a closed-loop water system that recycles the water 30 times and uses six times less water than the industry average. Recycled fibers are de-inked without elemental chlorine. The company estimates that the impact of its Enviro paper on climate change is 62 percent lower than virgin paper.

Most of the Sustainability Plan’s goals include a target date of 2030. One stated goal is to increase use of recycled fibers across all products by 20 percent; another is to increase recovery from new sources of waste fiber by 20 percent. “Right now, we source from the urban forest: sorted office papers,” Yardley says. “As technologies become available, we hope to find those new sources of recovered fiber. In the exploration of new fiber sources, we are working with different organizations, and with some of the municipal recycling facilities, to see how we can work together toward this ‘closed-loop future’. As technology changes, as demand changes, as the overall environment changes, and as we accomplish our initial goals, we need to focus on future goals as well.”

Yardley points out that the global recycling arena faces challenges that go beyond the paper recycling process—for instance, the sudden and seismic market shifts created by China’s changing regulations on the acceptance of waste from North America. Yet those challenges will create opportunities, she says. “I go to a lot of sustainability conferences, and the closed loop future is what everyone is looking at right now. We’re already having discussions with various customers about it. If we’re supplying fiber from our Rolland mills, or we’re supplying paper, and they’re having that printed… how do we then close that loop and bring the fiber back into our process?

“The challenge with the closed loop future is getting the logistics in place,” Yardley continues. “I really think you’ll see more and more of that. We can’t predict where the legislation will go, but as companies become more conscious of it and as consumers demand that we become responsible for the products we put into society, that closed loop model will increase.”

When sustainability is part of a company’s DNA, Yardley says, employees feel empowered to share ideas that can have a lasting effect. That was certainly the case for Rolland’s biogas initiative, which started about 15 years ago and was sparked by a suggestion from an employee who had watched a TV documentary on greenhouse gases. The suggestion launched a feasibility study that showed it made sense for Rolland.

Today a dedicated, 8-mile pipeline brings biogas from a nearby landfill to fulfill 93 percent of the paper mill’s energy needs. Not only is biogas renewable, it reduces the mill’s CO2 emissions by 70,000 tpy. The landfill operator collects the biogas (which was previously burned off, creating no value), a utility operates the pipeline to Rolland, and both receive revenues as part of the supply chain. The cost-effective fuel also strengthens Rolland’s long-term competitiveness.

“Everyone talks about carbon dioxide, but methane is actually a nastier gas in terms of its heat-trapping properties. We’re capturing that gas and using it, then putting it out as steam instead of methane gas that would contribute to climate change. So it not only benefits the company, it benefits the environment as well,” explains Yardley.

She feels that this is the kind of win-win sustainability that will secure the industry’s future. “As I said, it’s a journey. We started focusing on all the environmental aspects, and it’s become our differentiator. The next step is to focus on the circular economy. In our journey, that’s where we’re going, and we’re working with a number of different partners. Those partnerships between stakeholders—our distributors, our customers, and others—is what will make us successful.

“As we work together, we will figure out the logistics and continue making sustainability an even stronger part of the supply chain,” says Yardley. “This will ensure that we are having a positive impact.”