The paper revolution: turning the page of the industry

Outi Kukkamaki Outi Kukkamaki Industry Segment Manager

“When I tell people that I work in the paper industry, everybody says, ‘But it`s a dying industry!’ And I say, ‘Is it? You maybe strive for a paperless office and read your newspaper online, but you use a lot of paper every day. Just think of tissue paper, your coffee to-go cup or the parcel from your online order.’”

Outi Kukkamaki, Habasit`s Industry Segment Manager for paper is undaunted by the changes that are swiftly transforming her field of expertise. Having been in the industry for nearly twenty years, she is the first to admit that digitalization has changed the world as we know it, but despite the steady decline of printed media, Outi has watched paper unfold into a blossoming market with a promising future.

Far beyond the printed word

In 1981, for the royal wedding of Princess Diana, there was such a high demand for magazines and papers that Europe ran out of newsprint. In 1998, the same thing happened when France took home the FIFA World Cup.

While people`s dependency on the printed word has undeniably declined, the demand for paper has not. Digitalization has meant an exponential increase in e-commerce which requires multilayer packaging for every item shipped across the globe. In North America alone, 95% of all products are shipped in corrugated boxes, which requires nearly 60 million tons of paperboard production.

Another factor, which is easily taken for granted by consumers, is the high increase of paperboard products in the food industry. As companies cater to convenience, paper packaging has become an essential marketing tool, and the growing awareness of environmental issues has created a significant shift from plastic to paper packaging.

Reprinting the future of recycling

In such a widespread industry as paper, it is no surprise that sustainability has become a growing concern. “Today`s newsprint is made out of old magazines and newspapers,” Outi explains. “Almost all of the mills in Europe use 100% recycled fiber, so that if I go to a paper mill recycling plant, I can see my newspaper from last week being turned into the one for next week.”

One could say that paper is like a good friend; it always comes back to you. Recycled fiber has largely substituted mechanical fiber in newsprint production due to its good availability and high economic value.

“It requires a lot of energy to grind or refine wood into the fibers,” explains Outi. Having a reliable source of wood and an extensive power supply is mandatory for the process. In Finland, if you live in the same city as one of these paper mills, you might notice your lights go out for a second the moment the mill starts. One of these plants uses more energy in one hour than what your home uses in one year.

The boards for packaging grades are made of either virgin fiber (for primary packaging) or recycled material (for secondary packaging). Primary packaging, which is the packaging you buy your products in, is mainly made out of virgin fiber since the printability and visual appearance are important factors. The world’s biggest grade called containerboard is mainly recycled fiber-based material and is used for secondary packaging to protect shipments. The trend goes towards lighter, more sustainable and stronger packaging for economic reasons, as well as for the protection of the shipment.

There has recently been a breakthrough innovation for cup carton. Have you ever thought that your takeaway coffee cup contains a lot of plastic in order to hold its shape for the beverage? Well, this is about to change. A new process without plastic was invented, making the cup 100% recyclable.

Toilet paper: the overlooked role of luxury or necessity?

Another often unseen sector in the industry is tissue paper. In Western Europe, more than 20 billion rolls of toilet paper are used every year, making a so-called dying industry worth approximately 10 billion Euros.

In the past, what you used for toilet paper depended largely on your income, so that rich Romans used wool soaked in rose water, while French royalty preferred lace. There are still a few modern elites who consider the item to be an occasion for luxury. Beyoncé for example only uses the Portuguese brand Renova, which costs up to three dollars per roll and comes in an assortment of unique colors such as red, blue and a silky soft green.

For most of us, toilet paper is simply a necessity that is not to be missed. In a survey in which people were asked which items they would take to a desert island, 49% said toilet paper, a choice ranking even higher than food.

The paper potential of tomorrow

The paper industry, which also includes napkins, paper towels and diapers, is expected to continue to skyrocket with an increase in hygiene awareness and a rising disposable income in rapidly growing markets such as China.

“The boom will soon be followed by other developing countries,” says Outi, “but even more than diapers, exponential growth is expected in the market of female hygiene products. The importance of empowering women through the promotion of menstrual health has gained more and more importance in recent years.”

Meeting the needs of transformation

Habasit is the belting leader in paper printing and finishing processes and Outi is confident that Habasit is well-positioned to meet the challenges of the shifting market. In the packaging industry, Habasit belts already hold a strong position in the box making process, which includes complex automation of gluing, folding and transporting containerboard sheets at lightning speed. Each belt must have a constant coefficient of friction, dimensional stability and high abrasion resistance for fast and demanding applications.

Elastomer covered processing belts are also ideal for conveying fragile material such as tissue paper.

“Toilet paper is very sensitive in processing,” explains Outi. “The belts must be really good quality and have extremely gentle grip in order not to damage the paper.”

Belting requirements are as diverse as the uses of paper, and Habasit has a solution to meet them all. Far from a dying industry, paper remains an essential feature in each of our lives, and it is not likely to disappear anytime soon. (ST)

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