“The circular economy as a term is not perhaps widely known just yet,” says Riikka Joukio, Metsä Group’s SVP, sustainability and corporate affairs. “The basic idea is to use resources efficiently and use modern technology, produce as little waste as possible, use waste as raw material for other products, and keep raw materials in circulation.”
The forest industry is based on circulation, which makes is a good example of how renewable products are kept in circulation for as long as possible.
From sustainable sourcing to circularity in production
The first step is sustainable sourcing. Metsä Board’s main raw material is wood from northern European forests, and the company’s operations and their circularity began with sustainable forest management and securing the future growth of the trees. “When a tree is harvested, four new ones are planted. Renewability is nature’s own circularity,” says Joukio.
The second step is circularity in production. Metsä Board’s board mills circulate water, chemicals and other resources several times over. At the same time, the company continues to use water more and more efficiently, and has decreased the amount of process water it uses by 14% since 2010.
Furthermore, most Metsä Board mills are integrated with pulp production. “This lowers the need for energy to dry the pulp for transportation and reduces the logistical needs, as well as enabling the use of excess energy produced in the pulp-making process. Both have a positive effect on the climate,” Soili Hietanen, Metsä Board’s VP, sustainability and energy, points out.
Making use of industrial side streams
Metsä Group uses every part of a tree for the purpose that it is best suited to, and which provides the highest value. What is not utilized in the making of the traditional bioproducts is used in other ways. For example, about half of wood provides fibres that can be utilised for pulp. The energy that the mill doesn’t use for its own operations can be used by society. Today, Metsä Group produces 14% of Finland’s renewable energy – and all this from side streams.
“The new bioproduct mill in Äänekoski, Finland, is surrounded by a unique industrial ecosystem. The new mill utilises 100% of its production side streams to make new bioproducts and renewable energy. It also operates using zero fossil fuels and generates 2.4 times the amount of renewable electricity it uses,” Joukio explains.
The key idea of the circular economy is to use materials as efficiently as possible and to use them more than once. “It’s the opposite of the take, make and waste model,” Joukio continues.
Fresh and recycled fibres
In Europe, paper and board are among the most efficiently recovered and recycled materials. But recovery alone is not enough – both fresh and recycled fibres are needed. Fresh fibres keep the fibre loop alive, as all products cannot be returned back to circulation.
Soili Hietanen adds that fresh and recycled fibres also have different properties and end uses. “Fresh fibres from slow-growing northern European forests are strong, light and pure – and provide the material for our lightweight paperboards that generate less waste.”
Soili Hietanen, Metsä Board’s VP, sustainability and energy
Building up a value network that makes the most of the circular economy and resource efficiency is far from a simple process. It has taken Metsä Board decades to develop this way of working. “Being at the forefront of the industry means thinking ahead, investing in new technologies and always trying to find ways to do things better,” says Soili Hietanen.
These are certainly inspiring actions for a company, but is there something individuals can do today to enhance the circular economy? “Recycling packaging materials is a good place to start,” Riikka Joukio is quick to respond. “I do that myself every day.”
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