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Q&A: Jerry Schwartz, American Forest & Paper Association

The AF&PA's senior director of energy and environmental policy appears at TAPPI's PEERS conference this week to present an update on the pulp and paper industry's sustainability goals


Jerry Schwartz, American Forest & Paper Association

Sustainability in the pulp and paper industry is top of mind this week as professionals gather for TAPPI’s Pulping, Engineering, Environmental, Recycling and Sustainability (PEERS) Conference, which runs through October 30 in St. Louis, Missouri with a full slate of technical programs, workshops and keynotes.

Jerry Schwartz, senior director of energy and environmental policy at the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), presents an update on the association’s sustainability goals at PEERS on Oct. 28.

AF&PA advocates for the pulp, paper, packaging, tissue and wood products manufacturing sector in the United States, and has developed a rigorous set of sustainability goals for the industry. Since 2011, the organization and its members have been working toward meeting the goals identified in the Better Practices, Better Planet 2020 program.

Two of the six goals have already been surpassed: Improve purchased energy efficiency by at least 10 per cent (the AF&PA has tracked 11.6 per cent improvement among its members), and improve the worker safety incidence rate by 25 per cent, with a vision of achieving zero injuries (the rate has improved by 36.3 per cent).

Four of the 2020 goals remain: Increase paper recovery for recycling to exceed 70 per cent, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 20 per cent (members upped the percentage in 2017 after surpassing their previous goal ahead of schedule), increase fibre procured from certified forest lands and sourcing programs and work to reduce illegal logging worldwide, and reduce pulp and paper mill water use by at least 12 per cent.

Pulp & Paper Canada recently spoke with Schwartz about AF&PA’s sustainability progress and its plan for the next decade with the aim of sharing best practices for the U.S. pulp and paper industry’s Canadian counterparts.

Pulp & Paper Canada: What can we expect from the AF&PA over the next three years?

Jerry Schwartz: One is that 2020 is going to mark the deadline for the target goals that the AF&PA set under our Better Practices, Better Planet 2020 sustainability initiative. That initiative is one of the most extensive sets of sustainability goals for any major U.S. manufacturing trade association. Our members have done a great job. They’ve improved their energy efficiency and improved their safety performance ahead of the goals that we outlined in our original program. All that information is contained in our 2018 sustainability report. Those goals cover energy efficiency, paper recovery for recycling, greenhouse gas emissions reductions, worker safety, sustainable forest management and water use.

The second is, as you might guess, because we are reaching the end of the first target period, we’re very busy working on our next set of sustainability goals. We’ve decided that our next target year would be 2030, and so we’re working as hard as we can to get those goals in place.

We’ve been informed by some of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. It was kind of nice over the last couple of years to see the overlap between our goals and the areas that the UN has targeted for global improvement – it just shows that we’re on the right track. We’ve identified the categories for the new goals: greenhouse gas emissions, water, forestry, safety, circular economy, and diversity and inclusion. So some are in the same categories as our existing set of goals, but some also reflect recent trends in sustainability.

And then the third thing that we have in mind is that our target year for 2020 is coming up. It takes us a little bit of time to gather data, so in 2022, we’ll issue our final sustainability report that will actually document the performance of our members towards achieving those 2020 goals.

PPC: What are the UN Sustainable Development Goals that overlap with what AF&PA is doing?

JS: The one that’s gotten a lot of attention is the greenhouse gas goal. The UN has identified that as a global issue that its members want to focus on. We’ve done some analysis for our members, and we’ve looked at the performances of the various countries that have set their targets based on the Paris Agreement. And our members collectively have already met the targets that the U.S. identified.
Water is another; we reuse our water on average about 10 times before it’s discharged. And we also return about 88 per cent of the water that we withdraw back into the environment.

PPC: Why is sustainability critical to the future of the pulp and paper industry?

JS: I like to say that we’ve been using sustainability as an important foundation for the industry before anybody else was talking about sustainability. In 1995, we established the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. Then in 1996, we adopted a set of environment, health and safety principles. Both of those actions required members to adhere to certain standards to continue to be a member of AF&PA. Right from the get go, sustainability has been the foundation of the industry.

Looking forward, we can’t forget that sustainability includes economic, environment and social aspects. We’d like to focus on the companies that are profitable and enable them to continue to provide jobs and salaries, and to support the communities in which they’re located. In many of these communities, mills are by far the largest employer. More than 75 per cent of our mills are in counties that the U.S. government has identified as rural. These [mills] really are the economic foundations of the communities in which they’re located.

We’re continuing to seek ways to minimize the environmental impact of our manufacturing processes through innovation, equipment updates and sustainable procurement. We’re also focused on the social aspects of our operations and the recognition that our work is our most valuable resource. This industry has made a very significant focus on safety over the last several years. We have regular safety workshops, and our members and our employees are sharing best practices in these workshops.

PPC: How do you see the biomass industry being a driver of the circular economy?

JS: The circular economy is built on the idea that the world’s resources are finite and that we have to stop just taking, making and discarding those resources. Well, in reality, of course, as we said before, the forest products industry is built on a renewable resource. So as long as we practice sustainable forest management, we can sustain that resource going forward indefinitely. That is one very basic way in which our industry can further the circular economy.

One example of that circular nature of our industry is the use of renewable carbon-neutral biomass residuals to produce energy. On average, about 66.6 per cent of our members’ energy demand is met through those biomass residuals. Those are the leftover materials from the production process like trees, limbs, bark and liquid biomass. All of that is used as a source of energy for our industry – we take advantage of these resources that would otherwise be wasted.

PPC: What misconceptions are still out there about the paper industry’s energy and environmental efforts, and what are some things the industry can do to challenge them?

JS: One of the current misconceptions is around deforestation – that somehow manufacturing operations in the industry are contributing to deforestation. I really think it’s the opposite that is true. Think about the fact that in the U.S., privately owned forests supply 90 per cent of the wood that’s harvested in the country. So when you think about who the landowners are – the demand for wood fibre to make paper products is a key driver of maintaining forest cover.

If our members, through the demand for their products, didn’t provide an economic incentive for the smaller landowners and didn’t provide the economic incentives to continue to reinvest in the land, landowners might sell off that land for other purposes and that would result in the permanent loss of forest cover. In the U.S., there are more trees today than there were 40 years ago. So, the industry is thriving.

PPC: What kind of work is the AF&PA doing to communicate that message?

JS: One of the things that we can do is to take advantage of communications opportunities like this to get the facts out there. We continue to make sure that we’re selling products that provide value every day to consumers. And we do what we can to remove the attempts to impose guilt for using forest products.

Any opportunity that we get to tell the story with facts, data and analysis really gives us a great opportunity to get the message out. For instance, I’ll be one of the speakers at the TAPPI PEERS conference [this week]. It’s a great opportunity to talk about what the industry is doing collectively and to show the areas where we are making progress.

PPC: How does the softer demand for fibre in North America this year affect sustainability efforts?

JS: It is something that we need to keep an eye on – obviously [with] reduced demand for fibre, it does translate into reduced purchases for fibre. And as I explained earlier, it’s that demand that our members create in the manufacturing of their products that helps provide the resources for landowners to practice sustainable forest management that keep forests as forests.

There’s also a shift occurring. We all know that the industry is shifting over time from white paper and free sheet products to packaging. And there’s a great sustainability story there for packaging – some of the packaging sectors have incredibly high recycle rates. There’s really good performance in those mills. While there is this concern around the softening demand, we do have an opportunity to use that change as a way to amplify the story about sustainability across the industry.

PPC: What are some concrete ways that pulp and paper mills can improve their operations to reach the AF&PA’s sustainability goals, or similar benchmarks?

JS: One of the things I’ll highlight is our sustainability awards program. One of the criteria for judging applications is whether the project or activity is applicable to the rest of the industry. The goal here is to share best practices and help other members learn from the progress that the applicants have made. Conferences are another great opportunity – there are more technically focused presentations where people can learn what members have done to improve their sustainability performance.

The sustainability goals that we adopted years ago are a great way to tell our story. As our CEO told us at that time – it’s not just about telling your story, but it’s about telling a better story. It’s about helping the industry have a better story that shows continuous improvement.

PPC: What advice do you have on pitching sustainability solutions to senior management in a way that will get them to see the greatest value?

JS: This reminds me of the direction we got from our CEOs when we were creating our first set of sustainability goals. And one of the CEOs said, don’t even think about a sustainability goal that doesn’t also advance the economic prong of sustainability. By definition, if you’re advancing a sustainability project, the economics have to work.

There are now some more intangible aspects of costs that I think are appropriately being weighed in the calculation of potential investments. Those other factors include things like the social licence to operate, reputational risks, and the broad notion of the ESG – or environment social governance – considerations, that have started to become more prominent in investors’ thinking.

There’s this notion that employees, especially younger employees, want to be working for sustainable companies, and they want to be working for companies that have a purpose. When you put some of those more intangible considerations into the calculation, I think the sustainability equation gets much more clear.

PPC: What else is the AF&PA working on right now?

JS: At AF&PA, our mission is to advance policies to help the industry to be more sustainable. We do this at the federal level, state level and even some of the local levels.

Some of our key issues are a market-based paper recycling system, improved transportation infrastructure – that certainly would help with the economic aspects of sustainability as well as provide some environmental benefits – free and fair trade – which of course, these days is an important component of what we’re up to – and a competitive tax system, which is not quite as accurate now as it was maybe in the last few years.

And then a really big focus is regulatory reform and process improvement – providing regulatory certainty and helping the agencies develop regulations that make environmental sense and that are workable and implementable.