When we think of paper, we think of cellulose fibers—they comprise up to 99 percent of most paper-based products. Yet in that remaining small percentage, there is a huge amount of possibility.
Estimates vary as to the size of the paper chemicals market, but sources agree that it is a huge and growing sector. According to Future Market Insights, the global market for pulp and paper chemicals hit US$38.4 billion in 2023; FMI expects that to grow to US$46.5 over the next decade. Those chemicals are vital to defining the characteristics of each type of pulp, paper, or packaging brought to market.
For our industry, “new markets” include more than new products created to meet specific industrial or consumer demands. A rapidly changing, post-pandemic world is also creating market demand for:
- existing pulp, paper, packaging, and hygiene products in under-served regions, as consumption rises;
- enhanced or new properties for existing products, particularly in food packaging and medical markets; and
- the ability to meet increasingly high standards for product or process sustainability.
One secret to answering this huge range of demands is the remarkable utility of cellulose as a raw material. Another is the responsiveness of cellulose to the sophisticated range of chemical products and processes available today.
WHAT’S HOT IN PULP AND PACKAGING
To narrow the conversation, we asked specialists from three major suppliers to target an area opportunity they see in the use of chemistry to differentiate pulp, paper, and packaging products.
“Renewable chemistry innovations are elemental in developing new, innovative paper, board, and molded fiber packaging solutions,” says Irenée Philippe, manager, business creation, paper and board biomaterials, Kemira. “Pressure from both consumers and regulation urges brands to shift toward packaging that aligns with sustainability goals and offers favorable end-of-life (EoL) options.”
Franklin Zambrano, Ph.D., senior staff scientist, global technology for Solenis LLC, notes that market trends are being shaped by the pressing need for sustainability, energy efficiency, higher quality standards, and growing demand—and producers of market pulp are adapting to align. “All of this is happening in the context of increasing energy costs and fluctuating interest rates, which are exerting significant influence on the industry’s investment strategies,” Zambrano says.
While pulping machines have seen substantial improvements over the past decades to increase production capacity, many pulp mills still face limitations—”particularly in their drying machines, stemming from hydraulic constraints and challenges associated with steam availability,” says Zambrano. That’s where chemical innovation comes in.
“The production capacity of market pulp machines heavily depends on the efficiency of water removal across the forming, press, and drying sections, with drying being a crucial stage,” he explains. “In this context, employing dewatering chemistries can optimize the pulp dewatering process, ensuring higher dryness as the sheet enters the drying section. This approach brings forth a host of significant advantages, including:
- Reduction in steam consumption needed to reach the target sheet dryness;
- Increased machine speed while maintaining target dryness levels in press-limited systems; and
- Production of sheets with higher basis weights at the same baseline speed.”
Lower energy use supports market-based sustainability goals. In addition, pulp is being used in new ways, and for new products, including improved hygiene products, specialty packaging, and even textiles, making pulp quality even more important.
Edita Garlaite, global market manager-packaging at Buckman, sees a lot of potential in the packaging sector. She notes that, for packaging, “light-weighting” is still a key entry point for new market applications. “With e-commerce growing and companies migrating to more sustainable approaches, the market demands lighter, stronger boxes and more environmentally friendly products,” says Garlaite. “Each time a box is recycled, the fiber quality diminishes, leading to weaker fiber bonding and a need for more virgin fiber for additional strength. Chemistries such as those made from enzymes can bring a sustainable approach to fiber modification, adding strength, improving drainage, and making lighter-weight packaging, allowing use of fiber that has been recycled several times.”
Lighter weight, recyclable, paper-based packaging is perfect for meeting market demands created by new legislation like the State of California’s recently-passed SB 54, the “Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act.” With a target date of 2032, SB 54 seeks to reduce 25 percent of plastic packaging and mandates that 100 percent of packaging used in California by that date is recyclable. With a robust recycling stream already in place, paper-based packaging has a clear advantage.
“Chemistry is key in realizing the vision of fully renewable, repulpable, recyclable, and biodegradable packaging,” adds Kemira’s Philippe. “The challenge lies in expanding the use of fiber-based packaging to new, more demanding end-use applications while also ensuring that paper and board products meet the strictest regulatory standards, both now and in the future.” Philippe sees a strong future for biobased barrier technologies, as well as for renewable performance additives, that can help producers move away from more problematic chemicals. “These technologies enable the replacement of commonly used solutions such as petroleum-based PE (polyethylene) films, harmful PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), or single-use plastics like EPS (expanded polystyrene) in everyday items such as cups and their lids, take-away food boxes and bowls, flexible packaging, and wrapping papers,” he says.
Whether to improve sustainability, impart new product characteristics, or develop new revenue sidestreams, chemical suppliers can help. Mills should determine where they need the most guidance and simply approach their vendors.
Digital technologies are a great place to start, says Garlaite. “The use of chemical/digital technology provides packaging companies the means to manufacture products in a more sustainable way. The use of digital technologies can help to optimize chemical usage, improve production speed, improve the quality of pulp and paper products, and optimize resources such as energy and water usage,” she says. “These technologies help paper manufacturers provide safer working conditions by automating otherwise manual work.”
Being able to suggest proven solutions for applications in new areas is another skill vendors bring to the table, says Zambrano of Solenis. “For instance, while extensively explored in papermaking, the use of dewatering aids remains largely untapped in pulp production, making it a promising area of opportunity. Dewatering chemistries not only address the critical issues of energy savings associated with evaporation costs, but also offer the potential to enhance both the sustainability and production rate of the process.”
Overall, the industry needs to rethink sustainability—it’s the “must” for today’s new markets, says Philippe. “A key starting point is to be clear on the sustainability and EoL goals,” he says. “Ultimately, most renewable solutions will result in end products with a virtually identical look and feel to the legacy counterparts they replace. However, the path to get there requires openness to collaborate and innovate, while redefining how we measure and achieve the new, fit-for-use products with the desired EoL attributes.”
Innovations to Watch For
We invited our three contributors to give readers a “sneak peek” into new innovations their companies are developing. Here are their responses.
Edita Garlaite, Buckman:
“Paper mills are challenged to reduce freshwater usage, increase machine efficiency, and maintain or improve product quality while minimizing process variability, unscheduled shutdowns and additional costs. These can lead to use of more chemistries to supplement final product specifications and influent/effluent efficiency.
“In response, Buckman offers a new monochloramine program, Ackumen™ MCA-i™, an innovative chemical-digital solution that uses artificial intelligence to stabilize wet-end processes. It combines Buckman’s best-in-class monochloramine chemistry with state-of-the-art sensing technology, cloud-based data analytics, 24/7 expert monitoring and analysis, and accurate predictive modeling. This MCA generator can monitor multiple sensor data and mill process data, which can be used to automatically adjust the biocide program.”
Irenée Philippe, Kemira:
“Kemira is developing a 100 percent renewable PHA dispersion barrier technology for recyclable paper and board packaging, in partnership with Danimer Scientific. The technology provides an innovative and more sustainable alternative to traditional solutions, such as petroleum-based PE (polyethylene) films and harmful PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) for creating needed barrier properties against water, grease, oil, moisture, and water vapor in fiber-based packaging applications.
“Derived from vegetable oils using advanced biotechnology, PHA is fully biodegradable and compostable in various environments, leaving no harmful footprint behind, and it is safe to use in food contact. The aqueous PHA dispersion technology can be applied onto various substrates from paper and board to flexible films.”
Franklin Zambrano, Ph.D., Solenis LLC:
“Solenis has developed a pioneering chemical technology to boost pulp dewatering efficiency in market pulp machines, a critical factor for pulp mills with restricted production capacity due to press or dryer limitations. Our solution optimizes dewatering in the forming and press sections by treating the pulp slurry with specially formulated cationic polymers. This results in higher pulp dryness at the inlet of the dryer section, leading to significant improvements in machine efficiency.
“Industrial trials on hardwood and softwood market pulp machines demonstrate remarkable benefits: increased production rates (up to 3 percent), reduced steam consumption (up to 8 percent), and improved white water quality. This enables higher production rates and substantial energy savings.”