Green chemistry in the pulp and paper industry

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Martin Fairbank
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The colour green is associated with many things, including jealousy and inexperience. But for most of us the first association is probably “natural”. This is the idea behind “green chemistry”, which is a concept that has first developed about thirty years ago.

It was first developed in the U.S. as a response to the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, which declared that pollution should be eliminated by improved design instead of by treatment and disposal. Several years of discussion in the international research community then led to the publishing of “The 12 principles of green chemistry” in 1998.

Without going into details, green chemistry basically improves on the efficiency, safety, sustainable sourcing and biodegradability of chemicals. So, for example, an ideal chemical additive to a process would be very effective at doing its job without any unwanted side-effects, would be non-toxic and safe to handle, would not be derived from fossil fuels or rare minerals and would decompose to benign products after use.

We’re all familiar with some of the early successes, such as moving away from oil-based paints containing lead-based pigments towards water-based latex paints. What are some examples of successes and opportunities in the pulp and paper industry?

  • Dry strength additives based on an engineered cellulose additive, replacing petroleum-derived polymers, have been developed by Kemira.
  • Several suppliers have developed water-based coatings to impart oil and grease resistance to papers, replacing fluorine-based perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have raised health concerns due to bioaccumulation and potential health problems.
  • Phenol-free coatings have been developed for thermal receipt paper, replacing bisphenol A (BPA), which has raised environmental and health concerns, by Appvion (this business line was sold to Domtar earlier this year).
  • Bio-sourced and biodegradable wax products have been developed to replace paraffin wax products by suppliers such as Solenis.
  • Paper cups using polybutylenesuccinate (PBS), which can be made from renewable sources and is biodegradable and repulpable, to replace polyethylene as the inner layer of paper cups in order to contain liquids, have been on the market for about four years now.
  • Celluforce has announced that their NCC (nanocrystalline cellulose) can be used as a gelling agent in hydroalcoholic gels for hand sanitizers, as a replacement for petroleum-based polymers.
  • Finally, paper and cellulose products themselves can replace petroleum-based, non-degradable materials such as plastics. Examples are as old as paper bags or as new as “Thermocell”, a new thermoformable product developed by Finland’s VTT using cellulose and fatty acids, two completely renewable substances.

While these examples are all laudable, the progress of green chemistry is a good news, bad news story. The bad news is that mainstream chemical businesses have not yet fully embraced the green chemistry concept. According to the American Chemical Society, more than 98% of all organic chemicals are still derived from petroleum.

The good news, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review last year, is that half of the growth that took place between 2013 and 2018 in consumer packaged goods came from products marketed as sustainable, and they grew 5.6 times faster than those that were not.

Now that sounds like a great opportunity for the pulp and paper industry!


Martin Fairbank, Ph.D. Martin Fairbank has worked in the forest products industry for 31 years,
including many years for a pulp and paper producer and two years with
Natural Resources Canada. With a Ph.D. in chemistry and experience in
process improvement, product development, energy management and lean
manufacturing, Martin currently works as an independent consultant,
based in Montreal. He is also an author, having recently published
Resolute Roots, a history of Resolute Forest Products and its
predecessors over the last 200 years.


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