Filling and Packaging Industry Blog

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Pulp Mills and the Clean Technology Debate - Paper Industry Challenge

Pulp Mills and the Clean Technology Debate
Written by Raúl Pierri

The construction of two pulp mills in Uruguay has put this small South American country at the centre of the global debate among environmentalists, scientific researchers and large corporations on what is the most effective and cleanest technique for producing paper.


The first step in the manufacturing of paper is the production of wood pulp, a process that uses a number of chemicals and large quantities of water. Pulpwood is reduced to small chips that are processed into pulp to free up the fibres, which are dried and used to produce paper.

The sulphate, or kraft process, which involves boiling wood chips with caustic soda, is used to obtain 95 per cent of the pulp traded on the open market. It produces a strong pulp which, although dark brown at first, becomes white through a bleaching process.

The chemicals used in the bleaching process needed to remove the lignin, which gives the pulp its brown colour, include chlorine or chlorine dioxide, caustic soda, oxygen peroxide and sodium hypochloride.

Although the chemicals as well as the organic waste products generated in the process of producing wood pulp each have their own harmful effect on the environment, the biggest villain is chlorine and its derivatives.

The traditional bleaching process releases large quantities of organochlorines (dioxins and furans), which are two of the 12 pollutants singled out in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).

This international treaty is aimed at phasing out 12 specific POPs, which are highly toxic to animals and humans; are stable and persistent, lasting for years or decades before degrading into less dangerous forms; travel widely through the air and water; and accumulate in the fatty tissue of living organisms, which means they can be passed along the food chain.

Exposure to these 12 toxins has been shown to weaken the immune system and increase the risk of cancer, hormonal imbalances, neurological disorders, infertility and diabetes.

Under pressure from local communities and environmentalists, the wood pulp industry developed a system based on chlorine dioxide, which releases smaller amounts of organochlorines.

The technique, known as Elemental Chlorine-Free (ECF), is currently the most widely employed, and is the one that two European companies - from Finland and Spain - plan to use in Uruguay in pulp mills that are scheduled to begin operating in 2007.

But Uruguayan biologist Oscar Galli, one of 60 scientists who signed an open letter of protest addressed to Uruguay's leftist Broad Front government, said "Scientific studies have clearly demonstrated that the pulp mills will have serious effects on the local ecosystems."

"The few advances that have been achieved are due to the heavy pressure people have mounted against this kind of factory," he told IPS.

"Our rejection of the plants is not only based on recent experiences in other countries that were unfortunate enough to have this industry, but also on current scientific knowledge. This empirical and theoretical experience allows us to state that the installation of the pulp mills will definitely bring pollution," says the open letter.

After the appearance of ECF, the Totally Chlorine-Free (TCF) technique was developed, which uses no chlorine-containing compounds.

Approximately 20 percent of the wood pulp produced worldwide is obtained by the traditional chlorine-based bleaching process, 75 percent is produced using the ECF method, and five percent by the TCF method, according to figures from 2002 cited by the World Rainforest Movement (WRM).

Researchers and environmentalists say companies have failed to adopt the TCF technique because of the higher costs involved.

But agricultural engineer Carlos Faroppa, a spokesman for the Finnish company Botnia in Uruguay, told IPS that it is a problem of quality and effectiveness.

"TCF is hardly used around the world because the technique has not continued to advance. The fibres it produces cannot be used to manufacture quality paper. Efforts to improve the ECF technique have been continuing for 12 years, and it is the most advanced ECF method that will be used in Uruguay," he said.

The controversy broke out in March, when the government of socialist President Tabaré Vázquez, who took office that month, confirmed that plans were going ahead for the installation of two pulp mills by Botnia and Spain's Empresa Nacional de Celulosa de España (ENCE) in the western city of Fray Bentos, along the Argentine border.

The pulp mill projects had been authorised by the previous government.

Local residents and authorities in the neighbouring Argentine province of Entre Ríos and in Fray Bentos, environmentalists from both countries, and even the centre-left government of Néstor Kirchner in Argentina have launched a crusade against the two plants.

The Uruguayan government, meanwhile, ensures that the environmental impact will be minimal, and underlines that the pulp mills will generate jobs and draw more than 1.8 billion dollars in investment.

The ENCE plant will have a production capacity of half a million tons a year, while Botnia's will produce one million tons.

According to Faroppa, the pulp mills that have been most recently installed around the world use the ECF method.

But the Argentine chapter of the international environmental watchdog Greenpeace stated in a communique that ECF plants are the biggest sources of pollution from organochlorine compounds in waterways.

Greenpeace Argentina maintains that it is possible to manufacture paper without polluting the environment, by using sustainable forestry management techniques, non-toxic processes and effluent-free technology (through the reuse of water), and maximising the recycling of paper products while reducing consumption, particularly in the world's industrialised countries.

Pointing to the pollution that the Fray Bentos mills will cause by dumping liquid waste into the Uruguay River, which forms part of the border between Uruguay and Argentina, Galli said the river was already at its limit in terms of oxygen problems for fish, which would be aggravated by the new plants.

Dissolved wood, chemical residues and subproducts of the reactions of chemical and organic substances reduce oxygen in the waterways, killing off fish.

"Botnia admits that it will dump 200 tons a year of nitrogen and 20 tons of phosphorus into the river, which is equivalent to the sewage produced by a city of 65,000 people," said Galli. "That will seriously jeopardise the survival of fish. Algae is the first link in the chain to be affected."

The disappearance of a small waterweed that served as the main food source for black-necked swans in a lake in southern Chile that received liquid waste flows from the Valdivia pulp mill led to the death of hundreds of swans and forced thousands of surviving birds to leave the area, which is a nature reserve.

Faroppa, however, said the water taken from the Uruguay river would be thoroughly treated before it was dumped back in, and that it would be even cleaner than it was in the first place.

According to Galli, the mills will spew into the air large amounts of reduced sulphur compounds and hydrogen sulfide, which can cause a strong "odour of rotten eggs" for several kilometres around the plants.

Epidemiological studies have shown that prolonged exposure to these smelly sulphur compounds increases the risk of acute respiratory infections.

Although it assigns low importance to the effect of the offensive odour, Botnia's own environmental impact study acknowledges that many people "will stop engaging in outdoor activities in the area around the plant," and that the smell could discourage the use of public spaces.

But Faroppa said the plant's emissions will have the lowest possible level of pollutants thanks to strict controls in keeping with European Union guidelines, which he noted are more stringent than those of the United States, and will be enforced by municipal and central government authorities and experts from the company and the University of the Republic.

Uruguayan Deputy Minister of the Environment Jaime Igorra announced last week that the two pulp mills will use lignin as a fuel, which means they will be self-sufficient in energy and will even be able to sell the surplus to the Uruguayan state power utility UTE.

Around 35,000 people from Uruguay and Argentina blocked the international bridge linking Fray Bentos with the city of Gualeguaychú across the border on Apr. 30 to protest the installation of the pulp mills. And last week, demonstrations were staged by thousands of schoolchildren in the Argentine province of Entre Rios.

The controversy thus continues to rage on both sides of the border as construction of the plants moves ahead as planned. (END/2005)

2 Comments:

  • If you want a good explanation about this subject please see the picture that I have published in my site about the Pulp Mills in Uruguay

    By Blogger Tao, at 9/3/06 11:08 AM  

  • A number of Indian packaging firms today are innovating with packing trends for specialized products. Along with traditional packaging techniques, these firms are evolving with software technologies to speed up the packing process; maintain quality of products which are produced on a mass scale. With huge potential to innovate and experiment, Uflex Ltd. too has entered the innovative packaging trend.

    By Blogger Sun Mars, at 1/2/13 2:14 AM  

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