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Biomaterials as Growth Engine for Pulp & Paper? Why not in Maine?

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10.07.2015

According to the recent Bloomberg article, “Biomaterials May Be Next Growth Engine for Paper Industry,” pulp and paper companies world-wide are becoming more profitable by going biobased. Instead of traditional writing papers and newsprint, companies are finding new, high-value uses for wood. There is a global shift from traditional pulp and paper products to biomaterials – advanced packaging, biobased chemicals, advanced biofuels, and other high-profit products.

So what about Maine’s pulp and paper mills? Instead of hearing about new innovative projects at Maine mills, we are battered with news of layoffs and shut-downs. But as these mills shut down or downsize, we have an increasing amount of underutilized industrial assets that can be repurposed to support biobased manufacturing.

Cascades, a multinational paper company, announced this year that it’s investing $26M in innovative, biorefinery technology at its Quebec facility – the extraction of hemicellulose from wood chips. Hemicellulose, a natural polymer found in plant cell walls, is also called “cellulosic sugar.” It can be sold as a commodity or converted to advanced biofuels or higher-value products such as biobased chemicals. If this is happening to the north of us in Quebec, why not in Maine?

 If pulp and paper companies can diversify production by making high-profit biobased chemicals, then temporary market shifts (like high pulp prices) can be weathered. Maine wood costs more than wood anywhere else in the country? That’s true. So let’s make higher-value products with our wood! Maine energy costs are high? So are Japan’s, but that doesn’t stop them from innovating. The Japanese are developing new biobased technologies, and investing in advanced biofuels - they’re even making biobutanol from fruit trees.

The Bloomberg article cites UPM as one of the companies that is innovating and moving towards biomaterials. So what about UPM’s Madison, Maine mill and its precarious situation, as described recently by the Portland Press Herald? Is UPM upgrading equipment and technology to pursue biomaterials and ensure the long-term sustainability of that mill? Is UPM innovating at Madison like they are in Finland? 

The entire world seems to be re-tooling pulp and paper facilities to respond to the surging global demand for biobased products, chemicals, and bioplastics. According to the Bloomberg article, 38 percent of Stora Enso’s earnings came from paper last year, which is a huge decrease from 70 percent nine years ago. A Stora Enso representative said, “we are working toward being a renewable materials company instead of a paper company.”

Why isn’t this happening in Maine? Can it still happen or is it too late?

It’s never too late. We have trees in Maine – more certified sustainable forests than any other state in the country, in fact. We have a talented workforce, particularly in the pulp and paper industry. We still have a lot of attractive industrial assets. Let’s use these assets to keep Maine workers employed. 

What’s needed to make this vision of biobased manufacturing a reality for Maine? A coordinated strategy to inventory our assets and use this information to market Maine’s assets globally to attract investment.

Environmental Health Strategy Center, in collaboration with the business-led trade association Biobased Maine, is working hard to attract investment to support Maine’s emerging biobased sector. For more information on our strategy, read our recent Op Ed in the Bangor Daily News. And be sure to contact us to learn how you can help fight for a sustainable economy in Maine.