As the worldwide recession subsides, the South African paper and pulp industry has settled, with some grades of sustainably produced pulp, packaging and tissue paper showing slight growth in demand.
However, with rising imports, increasing costs and worldwide overcapacity in products like newsprint, the profitability and sustainability of producing certain grades of paper locally might be a future challenge, notes industry body the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (Pamsa).
Pamsa executive director Jane Molony tells Engineering News, that overall, South Africa’s paper consumption per capita has risen, owing to the increased consumption of packaging and tissue owing to the country’s improved living standards, which should continue to drive tissue and packaging demand. Printing and writing grades are, however, showing indications of a per capita decline.
As a result, the domestic and international demand for market pulp is strong, particularly for hardwood pulp.
The effect of the demand shift from softwood pulp to hardwood pulp will affect the type of trees grown in South Africa. This is resulting in a genus exchange, with less pine grown to produce softwood pulp and more eucalyptus being grown to produce hardwood pulp.
This demand shift will probably continue to improve the outlook for southern hemispheric pulp producers that, owing to the hemisphere’s complementary growing conditions, generally grow higher yields of hardwood, says Molony.
She says, although paper merchants indicate that the worldwide demand for printing and writing grades of paper has decreased, there is still a relatively healthy demand for A4 copier paper.
Further, the consumption of newsprint in South Africa has declined by 1.57% each year for the last four years. This is slower than the decline in the rest of the world, but is, nevertheless, in line with the trend that the market for newsprint is declining as a result of the increased use of digital forms of communication and the growth of electronic tablet device use.
It is also difficult to dissuade end-users from importing paper, even if a product is being manufactured locally, says Molony, adding that imports of all grades of paper and board have increased by 25% since 2006.
Meanwhile, JSE-listed pulp and paper manufacturer Sappi has identified a gap in the market to produce dissolving wood pulp. Dissolving wood pulp, also known as chemical cellulose, is used to produce fibre, and, in turn, textiles that can breath, unlike oil-based textiles like polyester.
This type of pulp can also be used in the production of cellphone screens and pharmaceutical and household products.
Sappi CEO Ralph Boëttger says the demand for chemical cellulose is expected to increase from next year as supplies of global cotton production flatten and fail to match increasing demand, creating a gap in the textile market, which chemical cellulose can fill.
Sappi has therefore invested $340-million in its GoCell expansion project at its Ngodwana mill, in Mpumalanga.
Hygiene and health solutions provider Kimberly-Clark South Africa has also, in less than two years, invested R320-million in its Epping mill, in Cape Town, to add two new production lines to manufacture dis- posable nappies and hygiene products.
Further, integrated paper and packaging group Mondi has a potential €25-million project, which is currently in the consultation phase, to debottleneck capacity, improve efficiency and increase its eucalyptus pulp capacity by 8% at its Richards Bay mill, in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).
Sappi and Mondi are also the largest producers of energy from renewable biomass fuel in South Africa, owing to the nature of their manufacturing process.
The use of renewable biomass-based energy has enabled the South African paper manufacturing industry to avoid using about 1.3-million tons a year of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas and, in turn, avoid emitting about three-million tons of carbon dioxide, says Molony.
Biomass collection for power generation will also potentially extract between 15% and 20% more value from the available forest area in KZN and Mpumalanga and increase the viability of the country’s pulp and paper sector through job creation, profitability and growth, says Molony.
Plantation forest biomass, such as branches, sawdust and off-cuts, is a sustainable and renewable source of biomass. It can be more reliable than other biomass sources because it is not directly affected by seasonal variation and drought.
For example, about 50% of the waste produced at a sawmill can be used as biomass, 11% of waste produced at a softwood pulp mill, 8% of waste produced at a hardwood pulp mill and 25% of waste produced at pole manufacturers, as well as 25% of mining timber and 33% of plantation residue, reports IES Energy, consultants to Pamsa.
In the last few years, a considerable amount of research has gone into the identification and extraction processes of various chemicals found in pulping liquors and waste streams.
Sappi’s chemical cellulose-producing Saiccor mill, in Umkomaas, KZN, is the world’s largest commercial producer of calcium lignosulphonate – a chemical with several uses, owing to its binding properties.
Sappi’s Tugela mill, in Mandeni, KZN, has also commercialised its production of sodium lignosulphonate, which is used in road surfacing and brickmaking.
Further, the process employed to produce high-alpha cellulose at Sappi’s Ngodwana mill will generate an aqueous stream rich in sugars and, therefore, could become a valuable feedstock for numerous primary and secondary organic chemicals.
Meanwhile, research on the fermentation of paper mill wastes that are used to produce chemicals such as ethanol are at an advanced stage of development and could significantly reduce demands on landfills, while, simultaneously, producing a commercial chemical product, highlights Molony.
“When weighing up the sustainability of the pulp and paper industry, keep the following in mind: tree plantations help to absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the atmosphere, paper is entirely recyclable and can be recycled up to seven times and using renewable bio- mass-based energy has enabled South African paper manufacturers to avoid using more than one-million tons a year of fossil fuel,” she concludes.