With more than $6.5 billion in annual revenue, Domtar is a huge force in the commercial paper industry, making everything from office paper to adult incontinence supplies.
Its commitment to sourcing and harvesting timber responsibly stretches back more than 10 years, when it started using the Forest Stewardship Council guidelines. The company's EarthChoice brand is one expression of that strategy.
But to transform its sustainability initiatives from a resource-saving and cost-cutting exercise, Domtar stopped thinking of itself as a commodity pulp and paper company and started looking far more closely at which timber and wood components it was using resourcefully, and which it was not.
"It's really our vision to become a global leader in fiber innovation," said David Struhs, vice president of sustainability for the Montreal-based company. "This is the heart of what sustainability is all about."
Historically speaking, the pulp and paper industry has improved efficiency and squeezed out production costs by investing in pulp-processing technology innovation such as the ability to produce wider sheets at faster speeds, Struhs said.
"Some of the fundamentals remain true, but given the fact that we are in an industry that is declining, it has forced us to rethink long-held beliefs," he said.
As a result, Domtar has refocused its research and development on solving a different puzzle: how to make better use of the ingredients that usually wind up as waste products such as lignin, which you can think of as the "glue" that holds the tree together.
Next page: Turning waste into a commodity
To spearhead those efforts it hired patent-holding scientist Bruno Marcoccia as director of research and development. It is his team's job to turn what was previously thought of as waste into a marketable commodity.
"It is very natural to focus your sustainability initiatives around improving the efficiency or optimizing the performance of your existing materials flows to lower the cost of production, improving efficiency or reduce the environmental footprint," Struhs said. "The next level is looking beyond the bottom-line savings of it, and focusing on top-line growth."
Rethinking wood waste
Up to 20 percent of harvested wood is made up of lignin, which has traditionally been used as a fuel for paper mills and production facilities. But Domtar is working on new refinement technologies that separate the material and extract it for potential applications as an alternative to petrochemicals.
Its first commercial-scale lignin separation plant in Plymouth, N.C., began producing Domtar's BioChoice lignin in February and is targeting eventual production of 75 tons per day. The material could be used for creating more environmentally sensitive asphalt, as one example offered by Struhs.
The investment in the facility began back in 2010 and it was partially supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy, through the Biomass Research and Development Initiative.
"The possibilities for making a real difference in terms of offering manufacturers a bio-based alternative to the use of petrochemicals is truly exciting," said Hasan Jameel, professor at the North Carolina State University's Department of Forest Biomaterials. "This is a big win for sustainability on two counts -- Domtar improves the efficiency of its pulp-making process, and at the same time the market gets a reliable, high-quality source of this underused material with so much potential."
Next page: Commercializing research findings
Investing in new approaches
Domtar is also at the forefront of an effort to commercialize an eco-friendly product called nanocrystalline cellulose, which is extracted from tiny wood pulp fiber particles. It is incredibly strong and lightweight, and could be used as a material for aerospace and auto components, textiles or bio-composites (such as bone replacement), Struhs said.
Rather than attempt to develop NCC on its own, Domtar teamed up with forestry research organization FPInnovations to create a joint venture called CelluForce Inc. The company is operating an NCC demonstration project at the Domtar pulp and paper mill in Windsor, Quebec. Its production of about 1 metric ton daily is being tested by 15 companies in Canada, the United States, Europe and Asia for applications in paints and coatings, films and barriers, textiles and composites.
It took approximately 14 months to build the $36 million plant, which was backed in part with $23.2 million from Natural Resources Canada and $10.2 million from the Quebec Natural Resources and Wildlife Department.
"Our investment in the CelluForce project is part of a larger story at Domtar at unlocking greater value from wood fiber," said John Williams, president and CEO of Domtar, commenting about the plant's successful completion.
Domtar invested in the joint venture rather than going it alone was the effort required to commercialize NCC, which requires focus and industry cooperation, Struhs said.
Some research from the pilot will be shared, but Domtar has taken steps to ensure that its investments in NCC -- and its lignin extraction process -- are protected from an intellectual property standpoint. To that end, it has hired a full-time lawyer to work with its R&D to help manage this process. "It's important that you understand on the front end who owns what," Struhs said.
Photo of machine in paper plant provided by Moreno Soppelsa via Shutterstock