Between objectives achieved, challenges to be faced and ambitious programmes, the ecological transition of the paper sector is progressing. The take of Assocarta and CEPI in a dedicated webinar.
Society’s journey towards an increasingly “green” tomorrow continues unabated, thanks to constant stimulus from consumers, companies, associations and legislators. Further proof of awareness in this regard came from the webinar entitled “The contribution of #paper for a sustainable future”, organised by Assocarta and CEPI, an initiative promoted by the Italian and European paper industry and included in “All4Climate”, the official programme of pre-COP26 events recognised by the Ministry of Ecological Transition.
Massimo Medugno, director of Assocarta, introduced the proceedings with an overview of the strength and solidity of the Italian paper industry. «The Italian paper industry is an important sector, with 119 companies for 153 plants, 7 billion in turnover and part of a wider supply chain that, in our country, reaches about 20 billion in turnover, in fact 1.3% of the national GDP».
A sector, moreover, made up of excellences, Medugno stressed. «We are Europe’s second largest producer of wrapping paper and first in the hygiene sector. We are also second in the use of paper for recycling. During the first phase of the pandemic – in March 2020 – we were declared essential by the Italian government, probably not only because of the type of products we put on the market, but also because of their relevance to the circular economy. Regarding the first aspect, paper has many destinations and is an essential sector for information, culture, packaging and hygiene. As far as sustainability is concerned, already today more than 5 million tonnes of paper for recycling are in our mills every year, which means we are definitely an important part of the Italian and European sustainable economy».
An environmentally-friendly sector
Assocarta places a high value on transparency in environmental communication. «The paper industry, the first in Italy, has been publishing an Environmental Report for 21 years in which the sector’s key environmental indicators are presented» Medugno continued. «Some figures show that 58.6% of the fibres used are recycled, 85% of the virgin fibres purchased have FSC or PEFC forest certification, 79.6% of the paper produced comes from ISO 14001 or EMAS certified sites. In 25 years we have reduced specific energy consumption by 25% and water emissions (COD) by 50%».
What’s more, paper is a biomaterial and can be considered the renewable sector par excellence, moving from chlorophyll photosynthesis and energy from the sun, as Medugno himself pointed out. «The natural origin makes the fibre renewable and the paper has a low environmental impact even at the end of its life, as it is biodegradable, compostable and recyclable. This year, in the area of packaging, we reached 87% recycling in Italy, putting us ahead of European targets».
In this regard, there has been much talk recently about packaging, especially with regard to packaging of fossil origin. «The paper industry and the paper chain in general have followed the evolution of the single-use plastics directive closely,» Medugno said. «In Italy, we are arriving at the transposition in an important way, as we are going to respect the indication in the directive between what is structural and what is accessory: when the packaging is mainly paper, even if there is 5/10% plastic, it remains paper. This has been well specified by the Italian legislator, providing a tool to be able to continue the ecological transition and to improve the circular economy. From this point of view, we are working with Comieco and Conai on mechanisms to verify the recyclability of paper and we are introducing a system of differentiation of the contribution according to recyclability, similar to what is happening at European level in Cepi, precisely to push more and more towards effective recycling».
The energy question
Moving on to energy issues, these days – in Italy as well as throughout Europe – there is much talk of high energy bills and the energy crisis. «The paper sector is a major energy user and consumes around 2.5 billion cubic metres of natural gas. Moreover, 90% of the Italian recycling and paper industry runs on gas, a figure roughly shared at European level. Consequently, the sustainability of energy and the energy cycle leads to greening the circular economy itself: if we were to face energy shortages, there could somehow be problems for the circular economy and recycling».
The way to decarbonisation – which can be done to increase and improve the environmental profile of the paper industry – is to partially replace gas with biogas and biomethane. «By 2030 the potential Italian biogas supply, according to some studies, could be 8 billion cubic metres; the potential from additional organic waste would be 800 million. From this point of view there are significant opportunities, even if biogas and biomethane cannot be the only solution to decarbonise cycles. However, it is to be hoped that with the receipt of the RED II directive, the use of biomethane will be encouraged, not only in transport and agriculture, but also in industrial cycles».
On the other hand, partly due to the fact that the electricity grid is not fully capable of supporting loads, self-generation of energy has become widespread in industry. «There are cases in which associated paper mills ask to be able to increase their connection capacity by 1 MW and are already denied this by the distributor, as the grid is not able to cope with this modest increase. Let alone asking for 20 or 30 MW more for an industrial site, as a national grid we could find ourselves in difficulty».
Where to intervene in the future
The other aspect that, according to Medugno, should be pushed, both in the transposition of the RED II directive and in the PNRR, should be to establish a virtuous link between forestation, production and biomass. «Forestry, including urban forestry, could be a further lever for decarbonisation if it were incentivised, making the company share in the environmental benefit. The use of biomass from the same areas could be used to produce energy and decarbonise production cycles».
Recycling is another issue. «By using more and more fibre for recycling and paper for recycling, we are producing more waste, while removing an incredible amount of waste from the urban cycle» warned Medugno. «It would be desirable for the National Waste Management Plan to pay special attention to recycling waste, providing for a couple of plants dedicated to the use of these materials. This would make it possible to push the circular economy. Vice versa, even today, many companies are beginning to export industrial waste, not only spending money, but also providing some additional competitive element to realities that are indeed colleagues, but also competitors».
In short, it is a complex scenario that, taken as a whole, promises the paper industry further scope for increasing sustainability. «We estimate that there are still 700/800 thousand tonnes of fibre to be recovered from urban waste. It can be done if politics helps us create the preconditions by decarbonising energy and making it affordable. We also need guidance, structures and tools to manage waste better. Finally, traceability is an important issue that we see not only with a view to reducing abuse – as the NRRP points out – but also as a support to broaden the field of use of fibres, for example in food contact» concluded Medugno.
The webinar “The contribution of #paper for a sustainable future”, organised by Assocarta and CEPI, was also attended by Jori Ringman, director general of the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI), taking stock of “#Europe2050: target zero emissions”.
«The green deal in Europe is being developed by all members, with an unprecedented acceleration of related policies» Ringman noted. «The paper industry has a great opportunity to provide a solution to the sustainability challenge. Following the goals of the ecological transition, globally and in Europe, the industry functions as a symbiotic ecosystem, where everything is used and nothing is discarded. No trees are cut down to produce the paper, as it is made from waste wood used in construction. Much of this wood is also cultivated».
Today, the paper industry is strongly committed to reducing carbon emissions. «The net effect of our mitigation activities is 20% of the EU’s total CO2 emissions. There is still a lot of potential to increase this contribution. This is why it is important that legislators and society as a whole are aware of the paper industry’s commitment, which is definitely part of the solution» Ringman reiterated.