In terms of environmental issues, climate change is clearly the biggest challenge. Other factors, such as resource shortages, the circular economy, and increasing environmental awareness among the publics also mean that companies need to find new ways of thinking and new operating methods.
"We source our raw materials from forests that grow more quickly than they are used. This helps us ensure that we have living forests with good vitality and that they can continue to absorb carbon,” emphasises Metsä Fibre’s CEO Ismo Nousiainen.
Switching away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible is also an important element of combatting climate change.
“We are aiming for 100 per cent fossil-free production by 2030,” explains Nousiainen.
The Äänekoski bioproduct mill is already entirely fossil-free, and both the new sawmill being built in Rauma as well as the new bioproduct mill being built in Kemi will follow its lead. At the Joutseno pulp mill, biofuel will replace fuel oil.
At the sawmills fossil fuels will be phased out in favour of biofuels.
The third link in Metsä Fibre’s climate chain is the company’s products themselves: sawn timber and pulp. They also represent climate-friendly solutions to the demands of the circular economy and scarcity of raw materials.
Metsä Fibre’s products are used as raw materials in production chains and will eventually form consumer products.
“Consumers are becoming more and more environmentally conscious. We want to help our customers ensure that their production chains meet sustainable development objectives.”
Pulp is also the basis for a brandnew fibre-based business opportunity, as Nousiainen explains:
“We are already developing a textile fibre that could replace synthetic fibres in the textile industry. We are also exploring the potential for 3D fibre products made entirely from processed pulp fibre, which could be used in packaging solutions, for example.”
Demographic changes fostering new demand
Demand for sawn timber and pulp-based products is growing in both low- and high-GDP countries, although for different reasons. Population growth is leading to increased construction in developing countries, in particular in rapidly growing major cities where populations are concentrated.
“When it comes to construction, wood is the natural material of choice. Even construction using concrete requires wood,” explains Ari Harmaala, Metsä Fibre’s Senior Vice President for Sales and Customership.
In developing countries, demand for products made from pulp is growing along with economic growth. As people’s standard of living improves, they use more paper, hygiene products and packaging materials.
“Rising living standards are evidenced in particular by a heightened understanding of the significance of hygiene. As consumers become more affluent, the amount of packaging that comes with their food also increases, and new demand for paperboard arises,” states Harmaala.
In developed countries, the growth in demand for pulp and sawn timber can be explained primarily by environmental factors and the growth of e-commerce.
“Wood is becoming widely used in construction, as sawn timber absorbs carbon throughout its entire lifecycle. Paperboard is being used in packaging to replace carbon-based plastics.”
In addition to megatrends like these, the COVID-19 pandemic has also resulted in a boost in the demand for pulp-based products, accelerating the sales of hygiene products all around the world.
Ever more rapid digitalisation
When it comes to technology trends, digitalisation is at the forefront, with developments coming at a rapid pace even before the coronavirus crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has only emphasised this trend further, explains Metsä Fibre’s Senior Vice President for Business Development, Kaija Pehu-Lehtonen.
“We have seen the switch to operating online taking place throughout society. Even consumers who prefer traditional stores have learnt to order products via the internet. As more and more products are being ordered online, the need for packaging materials is growing.”
At the same time, demand for printing paper has fallen.
“This downward trend has only intensified, and I cannot see the demand for printing paper ever returning to previous levels,” says Pehu-Lehtonen.
Digitalisation brings with it vast quantities of data that companies can use in their own operations. Pehu-Lehtonen believes that aggregating data from different sources is one particular area in which new business opportunities are opening up.
“We can use data in production and maintenance, but we can also utilise it in our work with customers and in sales. Combining open climate and soil data helps us assess in detail when we should harvest the forests.”
Artificial intelligence and automation are already used in pulp production, and soon they will be more widely used in sawn timber production.
“At the Rauma sawmill, data coming from the various processes is combined with product data, making it easier to ensure consistent quality. Customers also benefit from having even more detailed information about their products.”
Pehu-Lehtonen believes that the manufacturing of sawn timber, various fibre products, and other new bioproducts will become increasingly common in future industrial ecosystems.
“The aim is to make full and complete use of incoming materials in applications that provide maximum added value – but we cannot do it all by ourselves. To succeed, we need great partners who can convert our various side streams and pulp fibres into new value chains. This benefits every part of the ecosystem.”
This article was originally published in issue 2020–2021 of both Fibre Magazine and Timber Magazine. Take a look at the magazines.