Soft to the touch and sustainable – why northern wood makes for high-quality responsible toilet and kitchen paper

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Technology Manager Alexander L. Deutschle (Phd.) shows real enthusiasm. An expert in wood chemistry, Deutschle works European wide for Metsä Tissue, the company which has 9 paper mills in Europe. In his work, he leads development projects aiming for better and better tissue paper products, and production phases that are as efficient and environmentally sustainable as possible.

What has Deutschle so excited, is northern wood. At Metsä Tissue, the main raw material for tissue papers – such as toilet paper and household towels – is sustainable and renewable fresh fibre. Fresh fibre is the fresh wood fibre, which is generated by thinning forests to ensure healthy forest growth or as a by-product of producing wood products. These wood fibres are the raw material for pulp - fresh fibre.

As a raw material, fresh fibre originating from wood grown in the north is ideally suited for tissue paper.

“In toilet paper, for example, we use mainly short-fibre wood like birch. These fibres make the paper extremely soft, whereas the fibres of coniferous trees used in kitchen paper make the paper stronger,” says Deutschle.

“The fact that the fibres come from sustainably managed forests and from as short a distance as possible is also essential for the environment and sustainability,” he adds.

Fresh fibre is a plentiful raw material

The sustainability of forestry is the foundation of Deutschle’s work. It is important for him to be able to work with a renewable natural resource like wood.

“Finland has an enormous number of forests, and thanks to sustainable forest management, they grow more than they are used. In Metsä Group’s regenerating cutting phase we plant at least four new trees for every single tree used. As a raw material, wood must be used In full so that every part of it is put to use and the environmental impact of the production remains as small as possible. As the user of this raw material, it’s our obligation to take sustainability into account in everything, and it’s something our customers also expect from us. Resource-efficiency is at the core of Metsä Group's strategy".

He points out that fresh fibre is a sustainable raw material when it comes to its environmental impact.

“Every part of a tree is used as efficiently as possible, meaning none of the raw material goes to waste.

At the beginning of the year, Metsä Tissue announced that it invests in fresh fibre based tissue papers for the local market by renewing the tissue machine at the Mänttä mill and in addition, the company plans to double the fresh fibre production in its Mariestad mill, in Sweden. Although the company invests in fresh fibres, recycled paper is also utilized in tissue papers.

"However, the issues with the availability of the recycled fibre raw material are important to understand,” explains Deutschle. Newspaper subscriptions and the use of office paper, for instance, are declining continuously due to digitalisation, meaning that the volume of recycled paper is decreasing and recycled fibres are transported to the mills across increasingly long distances. In the long run, this is not good for sustainability.

In addition, the ink and other impurities in recycled paper must be carefully removed so that it can be used in the production of hygienic high-quality tissue paper.

“The use of fresh fibres saves energy and water, because the fibres require only minimal processing in the tissue paper mill. Fresh fibre is a naturally pure and hygienic raw material for the production of hygienic papers.”

As a raw material, fresh fibre is also more plentiful than recycled fibre and thus more resource efficient.

Everything is based on sustainable and resource-wise forest management

Vesa Junnikkala has worked at Metsä Group for nearly 20 years. In 2019, Junnikkala, who previously worked on the development of wood supply, became Metsä Forest’s Director in charge of sustainability.

It is Junnikkala’s experience that sustainability in the forest sector long meant that forests should not be over-harvested and that future harvesting possibilities should not be put at risk.

“Metsä Group’s parent company, Metsäliitto Cooperative, is owned by forest owners across the country. It’s always been important for the owner-members that their forests are passed on to the next generation in a good and robust shape,” he says.

Awareness of environmental and climate issues has increased greatly during the 2000s, and Metsä Group has also begun to focus on sustainability from a new perspective and with increased determination. Now, sustainability is a value that has an impact on all Metsä Group’s operations and permeates the entire value chain, from sustainably managed forests to responsible wood supply, and all the way to the mills’ production phases and the finished products, including tissue papers.

“Given that we use renewable natural resources in our operations, they must always be sustainable, so that we can also guarantee the availability of the wood raw material in the future. Metsä Group as a whole is also committed to increasing carbon sinks and the biodiversity of forests, of which forest certificates, for one, are an indication.”

To summarise, Junnikkala says that the entire forest industry, Metsä Group included, is an integral operator in climate change mitigation and the preservation of biodiversity. He thinks the future looks promising, and emphasises that forests are more than just trees. Forest nature is valuable, because for many people in Finland, forests are not only a source of livelihood but recreation. Junnikkala himself grew up at a small farm near the town of Lappeenranta.

“I was practically born in the middle of a forest. Forests are an important place for me, given that I not only work but relax and spend my free time in them, orienteering or hunting. It’s rewarding for me to be involved in developing solutions that safeguard forests from an ecological, economic and social perspective.”

Alexander Deutschle also sees the forest industry’s future as a bright one. When he joined Metsä Tissue, he was surprised by the strength of the company’s desire to promote sustainability and responsibility.
“Instead of paying mere lip service to ecological aspects, the company also gets things done, including more environmentally-friendly mills. We work hard to find increasingly responsible high-quality solutions and products with the future in mind. I’m proud to be part of this work.”

Deutschle knows what he is talking about. He and his team are developing promising new recipes for tissue paper production.

“We test the wood fibre blends of tissue paper in the lab on a continuous basis, examining their durability, absorbency, softness and other properties. If a particular recipe seems promising, we produce a test batch of it with a paper machine. That way, a successful project may result in a future quality product.”