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PaperWeek Canada commences with focus on COVID-19, carbon footprint

February 8, 2021  By Kristina Urquhart


PaperWeek Canada 2021 kicked off today – the first to be held virtually in the conference’s 107-year history.

The online format, hosted by the Pulp & Paper Technical Association of Canada (PAPTAC) via Microsoft Teams, is allowing some 900 professionals across the country to join in for keynotes, technical sessions, a trade show and networking opportunities today through Feb. 11.

The spike in conference attendance wasn’t the only unexpected positive brought on by the pandemic. In a year riddled with sawmill and pulp and paper mill closures and curtailments – 130 of them in total – and the scramble to ensure safe operations amid COVID-19, mills also got the chance to reflect and reset, said the panelists at PaperWeek’s opening keynote “Canada’s Forestry Industry – Impacts of COVID-19 and Recovery Strategies,” moderated by Véronique Proulx, CEO of Manufacturiers et exportateurs du Quebec.


‘Still in a crisis’

While the pulp and paper market in particular has seen lingering weak demand as a result of the pandemic, 85 per cent of forest products facilities that temporarily closed or curtailed have how reopened, said panelist Beth MacNeil, assistant deputy minister of Natural Resources Canada. That means 16,000 of the 20,000 forest sector employees affected by the curtailments are back to work.

“For us, COVID was kind of a reset,” said Eric Ashby, vice-president of manufacturing at Domtar. The company reorganized, and sold off its personal care division to focus on its core offering of pulp, paper and containerboard.

“We’re still in a crisis right now,” Ashby noted. “We’re still focused on trying to make it day by day.”

Ensuring the company remains strong operationally for the duration of this year is critical to Domtar’s long-term strategy, he said, so they will be in the best financial position to take advantage of new opportunities as the markets even out after COVID-19.

While the pulp and paper market remains soft, it’s showing signs of improvement, said Kevin Anderson, vice-president of pulp operations at Canfor Pulp. As a result, Canfor, buoyed by its foothold in the strong lumber market, is starting to set its sights on recovery strategies.

Before the pandemic hit, the company was already dealing with the pressure on B.C.’s fibre supply and the increased need for solutions to mitigate climate change, such as cleaner fuels and greener products. The pandemic hasn’t changed priorities – Canfor must adapt to fibre supply changes, focus on its strengths in premium reinforcement pulp and specialty products, and significantly reduce its carbon use, Anderson said.

A low-carbon future

Looking forward, the move to the bioeconomy is becoming ever-critical — though Ashby quipped that he’d joined the pulp and paper industry more than 30 years ago with the intent to develop biorefineries, and the industry doesn’t seem much further along than it did then.

Perhaps that’s what makes the federal government’s plan to have Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions be “net zero” by 2050 a lofty goal. Part of the strategy is $3 billion for a “Net Zero Accelerator” to help large emitters across all sectors scale up clean technology over a period of five years.

“[People ask] is it too much, too soon, too quickly?” MacNeil said of the net-zero target. “But the government is convinced the forest sector has a significant role to play.”

The feds have also allocated $82.9 million in the latest round of funding for the Investments in Forest Industry Transformation (IFIT) program, which has been helping the sector with bioeconomic opportunities since its inception in 2010. Past projects have included a bioenergy-from-wastewater initiative at Millar Western’s pulp mill in Whitecourt, Alta., and a cellulose filament demo plant at Kruger’s plant in Trois-Rivières, Que.

New projects that use fibre residuals to make compostable products are well underway, such as a wood-fibre face mask that will be soon available to the general public.

Moving to the bioeconomy means “we have to start building the value chain in Canada’s innovation ecosystem,” MacNeil said. She suggested “matchmaking” programs that would partner suppliers and potential clients with pulp and paper companies.

Anderson said that global competition and rising costs have led Canfor to start investigating a new portfolio of profitable green products. Currently, the company is assessing funding and incentives for bio-innovation and building its road map, looking at the opportunities provided by renewable energy and byproducts such as lignin, tall oil and turpentine oil.

Determining which segment Canfor will focus its efforts on comes next. “It involves overcoming the inertia of the pulp and paper industry over the last several decades,” said Anderson.

He noted that Canadian companies must look beyond integrated biorefineries to standalone plants, like the Kemi mill currently being constructed by Metsä Fibre in Finland.

Finding efficiencies

The inertia that Anderson mentioned is also tied to the current lack of Industry 4.0 initiatives at pulp and paper mills. Upgrading outdated equipment and instrumentation is foundational to any digital strategy, the panelists said.

While digital transformation initiatives are on the radar at Domtar, Ashby said developing standardized systems and clean data are first and foremost to the company’s strategy. “Our biggest issue is making sure we have the right data, and that it’s central, accessible and fast,” he said.

Anderson acknowledged the Industry 4.0 opportunities around online condition monitoring, advanced process control, optimization of management systems and digitalization of forest management, but said Canfor is currently focused on “end-to-end opportunities that will enable organizational efficiencies.”

“If you’re relying on data, you need to have precise instruments and equipment,” he said, noting that Canfor Pulp is “not in a hurry” to implement Industry 4.0. “You need to have the basics in place first.”

More PaperWeek Canada coverage will follow in an upcoming issue of Pulp & Paper Canada magazine.

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