Reconversion

Deadlock between Upm and trade unions for the future of the historic Chapelle-Darblay paper mill

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It was the only French paper mill to manufacture entirely recycled newsprint. Its owner, Finnish giant, put it up for sale in September 2019. And now, after 90 years in business, the historic Chapelle-Darblay is looking at a very different future.

On 2 July, Upm officially announced its decision to transform the 33-hectare plant in Grand-Couronne, near Rouen, into a hydrogen production unit that will be managed by Samfi-Invest/H2V Product.

Closed in 2020, due to a lack of competitiveness caused by the structural decline of newsprint, the Norman paper mill was not immediately dismantled. Its machinery and biomass boiler are still usable. About 230 employees were laid off in 2020, but three of them (trade unionists and workers’ delegates) are still working. Supported by the Confédération générale du travail, they have been working in recent months to find a solution focused on paper production. Workers do not believe in hydrogen, which is considered economically uncertain and unable to guarantee high levels of employment. In fact, the numbers speak for themselves: the production of hydrogen is expected to create 70 jobs, far fewer than the 230 jobs lost when the plant closed.

The Filpac CGT, trade union, therefore doubted the feasibility of the hydrogen project and would rather have favoured a takeover by a player in the paper industry, thus allowing more former employees to be re-employed. The same union reported that there was a plan by a consortium to continue paper production and that possible buyers had asked for an extension of the deadline to prepare a bid. However, Upm was reportedly not willing to extend the deadline, stating that the hydrogen project was the only binding offer. In any case, the union did manage to produce one result: it exercised its right to consult an external expert to examine the transaction. It will therefore be postponed, leaving a window for the union to find another solution.

Belgium’s VPK Group, which was interested in converting the mill to the production of corrugated case material, was long considered a promising suitor for a takeover. However, the group backed out and instead recently announced the takeover of French fine paper mill Alizay from Double A, where it now intends to realise the conversion project.

The Chapelle Darblay mill, one of the last two newsprint mills in France with a capacity of 240,000 tons per year, was officially closed at the end of June 2020, after having been idle for several months.

The Norman paper mill, a flagship of the circular economy, played a central role in the French recycling chain for old newspapers: it could absorb up to 480,000 tons per year, the result of separate collection by 24 million inhabitants.