Domtar Windsor closes the loop on circular economy

Domtar Windsor

Jaclin Ouellet

If you work in the pulp and paper industry, chances are you've come across the term circular economy, which has been creating a lot of hype as of late.

As a matter of fact, many recycling companies will tell you the circular economy is an inextricable part of their wheelhouse, given the fact that they close the ecosystem's loop by using recycled content in their paper mix. While the circular economy can take on a number of different meanings depending on what industry you are working in, the forestry sector indisputably lays claim to the concept of narrowing energy and resource loops. But what about paper or pulp mills who don't work with recycled content? How can they attain their goals of practicing a circular economy?

To better understand the concept, which has notably been applied for many years in European mills, let's consider Domtar's Windsor, QC facility. The company announced last June that as a direct consequence of the circular economy, the facility is now able to reduce the rejects it sends to landfills by 95%l thus extending its lifespan by 40 years!! (without using any recycled content).

How has Domtar managed to accomplish this? Let's consider the ecosystems principal: the way all beings live in a certain area has an impact on other beings and their environment. A similar sustainability concept exists, which is called 'industrial ecology,' which holds that any production process should try to mimic a 'closed loop' process, in a certain natural ecosystem. In such a scenario, each production step (tree harvesting, sawmilling, pulping, paper, etc.) must be sustainable and eliminate any waste production. In reality, that means each and every tree must be used efficiently in order to increase the value of sawmilling and pulp and paper production activities.

At Domtar, each mill applies its own version of circular economy. For instance, at the Plymouth and Marlboro mills in the U.S., fertilizer with moderate nutrient content is produced at the end of the fabrication process, which is destined for farming and horticulture activities. At Domtar Windsor, the circular economy means the mill is able to close the loop and integrate 400,000 acres of private forestland, which feeds its production process.

Sustainable practices

Patrick Cartier
Private Forestland Superintendant
According to André Gravel, Fibre Supply Director at the Windsor mill, everything begins with rethinking the word 'residue.' "When Mr. Gravel brought back the notion of a circular economy and after participating in a conference on residues, I realized that because of our best practices in our forestlands, we were already committed to something that connects with circular economy," says Private Forestland Superintendant, Patrick Cartier.

The paper mill and its operations are part of the circular economy, beginning with its fibre supply, the forest. First, trees are harvested following strict practices, which ensures the extraction of all possible value from the fibre itself. Wood chips and bark (also referred to as biomass) that result from sawmill activities are sent to the Windsor mill, which transforms those chips into pulp and paper. Biomass such as wood bark fuels the boiler, producing steam for the paper machine and electricity, which is then sold to Hydro-Quebec.

Patsy Inglis
Chief Services, Sustainable Development, Domtar
"The novelty in this chain of activities is in ashes valorization. Those ashes and other residues were, up until 2013, landfilled," explains Patsy Inglis, Chief Services, Sustainable Development.

The stabilized blend of ashes, rich in potassium, and other alkaline residues is used to improve soil pH in the natural forest, such as sugar maple forests. "The forestry part of circular economy is exclusive to Domtar Windsor. No other pulp and paper mill at Domtar does that," Inglis adds.

That picture wouldn't be complete without pulp and paper sludges, generated by paper production at the mill. Those sludges have been used in agriculture by many farmers in the Windsor region. Now, they serve as fertilizer for hybrid poplar plantations. Young poplar stems planted in the forest, with highly fertile soils, will attain or surpass estimated growth goals of those stems (reaching 20 metres in 20 years).

The end of landfilling?

Domtar's Windsor mill was able to reduce the rejects it sends to a landfill by 95%. Is 100% attainable? "Probably not, because we always have small rocks in the content. But we are clearly aiming at another 3%, thus 98%," Inglis says. That additional effort maybe difficult to reach. "Always keep in mind that re-using 95% of rejects is an everyday challenge. The infrastructure has to be maintained and Quebec's Ministry of Environment makes sure that our forests are viable for fishing and hunting activities."

"Spreading in our forests is not necessarily an easy task," Cartier recognizes. Behind this natural re-population, there is the planning of dosage. Domtar launched research activities with provincial government researchers and universities in order to follow the growth of these trees. These efforts account for Domtar's Windsor mill and all of its forestlands attaining ISO 14001, ISO 9001, FSC and SFI certification. "For example," explains Cartier," in these forests we generally opt for partial harvesting, followed by spreading. In the case of sugar maples, we were able to generate 30% more growth from the harvested land."

While Domtar's Windsor mill was an unknowing participant in the circular economy, the benefits cannot be understated. The facility is now able to attach a dollar value to its residues, and to stake its claim as a contributor to a more sustainable way of doing business.

At the very core of circular economy

A circular economy is a regenerative system in which resource input and waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimised by slowing, closing, and narrowing energy and material loops. This can be achieved through long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling. This is in contrast to a linear economy which is a 'take, make, dispose' model of production.

A major argument in favour of the circular economy approach is that achieving a sustainable world does not require changes in the quality of life of consumers, nor does it require loss of revenues or extra costs for manufacturers and other economic agents. The basic premise is that circular business models can be equally profitable as their linear counterparts, and allow consumers to continue to enjoy similar products and services. To achieve models that are economically and environmentally sustainable, the circular economy focuses on areas such as design thinking, systems thinking, product life extension, and recycling.

Emergence of the idea

In their 1976 Hannah Reekman research report to the European Commission, "The Potential for Substituting Manpower for Energy," Walter Stahel and Genevieve Reday sketched out a vision of an economy that focused on loops (the circular economy) and its impact on job creation, economic competitiveness, resource savings and waste prevention. The report was published in 1982 as the book Jobs for Tomorrow: The Potential for Substituting Manpower for Energy.

Considered one of the first pragmatic and credible sustainability think tanks, the main goals of Stahel's institute are product-life extension, long-life goods, reconditioning activities, and waste prevention. It also emphasizes the importance of selling services as opposed to products, an idea referred to as the 'functional service economy,' which is sometimes considered as the 'performance economy,' which advocates 'more localization of economic activity.'

In broader terms, the circular approach is a framework that takes insights from living systems. It considers that our systems should work like organisms, processing nutrients that can be fed back into the cycle—whether biological or technical—hence the emphasis on 'closed loops,' or 'regenerative' qualities .

The circular economy applies to, (and is claimed by), several different schools of thought, which coalesce around the same basic principles. The idea centres on taking insights from living systems. While hardly a new one concept, its practical applications to modern economic systems and industrial processes have gained momentum since the late 1970s, giving birth to four prominent movements. Notably, however, the concept cannot be traced back to one precise date or author. Promoting a circular economy was identified as national policy in China's 11th five-year plan starting in 2006. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation more outlined the economic opportunities afforded by a circular economy, bringing together complementary schools of thought in an attempt to create a coherent framework, thus giving the concept a wide exposure and appeal.

Most frequently described as a framework for thinking, its supporters claim it is a coherent model, valuable for its ability to meaningfully respond to the end of the era of cheap oil and materials, and can contribute to the transition to a low carbon economy. In line with this thinking, a circular economy can contribute to meeting the COP 21 Paris Agreement. The emissions reduction commitments made by 195 countries at the COP 21 Paris Agreement are not sufficient to limit global warming to 1.5 °C. To reach the 1.5 °C ambition it is estimated that additional emissions reductions of 15 billion tonnes CO2 per year need to be achieved by 2030. Circle Economy and Ecofys estimate that circular economy strategies may deliver emissions reductions that could basically bridge the gap by half.


The circular economy is intuitively more sustainable than the current, linear economic system. The reduction of resource inputs into, and waste and emission leakage out of, the system, reduces resource depletion and environmental pollution. However, these simple assumptions are not sufficient to deal what can often be complex systems, and often disregards potential trade-offs. For example, the social dimension of sustainability seems to be only marginally addressed in many publications on the circular economy, and there are cases that require different or additional strategies, like purchasing new, more energy-efficient equipment. By reviewing the literature, a team of researchers from Cambridge and TU Delft demonstrate the potential for at least eight different relationship types between sustainability and the circular economy:

  1. Conditional relation
  2. Strong conditional relation
  3. Necessary but not sufficient conditional relation
  4. Beneficial relationship
  5. Subset relation (structured and unstructured)
  6. Degree relation
  7. Cost-benefit/trade-off relation
  8. Selective relation

Circular business models

The various approaches to 'circular' business and economic models have slightly different emphasis on the key components.

  • Where possible, extend the life of materials and products over multiple 'use cycles';
  • Use a 'waste = food' approach to help recover materials, and ensure those biological materials returned to earth are benign and non-toxic;
  • Retain the embedded energy, water and other process inputs in the product and the material for as long as possible;
  • Use systems-thinking approaches in designing solutions;
  • Regenerate, or at a minimum, conserve nature and living systems;
  • Push for policies, taxes and market mechanisms that encourage product stewardship; 'polluter pays' regulations, as an example.

While the initial focus of academic, industry, and policy activities was mainly focused on the development of re-X (recycling, remanufacturing, reuse) technology, it soon became clear that the technological capabilities increasingly exceeded their implementation. To leverage this technology for the transition to a circular economy, different stakeholders have to work together. This shifted attention towards business model innovation as a key leverage for 'circular' technology adaption.

Circular business models are closing, narrowing, slowing, intensifying, and dematerializing loops, with the objective of minimizing resource inputs and waste and emission leakage out of the organizational system. In practice this looks like recycling measures (closing), efficiency improvements (narrowing), use of phase extensions (slowing or extending), a more intense use phase (intensifying), and the substitution of product utility by service and software solutions (dematerializing).

Photos: Courtesy of Domtar

Jaclin Ouellet
Journalist, Paper Advance