Accelerating circular business models

Why it’s material

There is a growing recognition among designers, businesses and consumers that we must move away from a linear ‘take, make, waste’ model of consumption where we extract raw materials, manufacture products and discard them to landfills. The pulp and paper industry is circular by nature, producing recyclable products made from renewable resources that are manufactured using a high proportion of renewable energy. We approach the environmental impact of our operations from an holistic perspective grounded in life-cycle thinking, from procurement of raw materials and energy through manufacturing, use and the next life of our products. The benefits of this holistic approach include less waste, lower costs and reduced environmental impact.

How this issue links to other aspects of our business

Our global priority SDGs


Our top ten risks

4 Sustainability expectations
9 Climate change

Our strategic fundamentals

  • Grow our business
  • Drive operational excellence

The global forces shaping our Thrive25 strategy

  • The move towards a circular economy
  • Climate change continuing to impact businesses and reshape societies
  • Resource scarcity and growing concern for natural capital






Manufacturing products from renewable resources is the core of Sappi’s business and central to our commitment to the circular economy. Through R&D, practical innovation and new product development, we continually create new products, solutions and value from natural resources.

The circular economy is based on three principles: design out waste and pollution; keep products and materials in use; regenerate natural systems1

1 Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation


Each year the world throws away:

  300 million tons of plastic
  50 million tons of electronic waste
  1/3 of all food produced

Creating a circular economy offers US$4.5 trillion economic opportunities by:

  Avoiding waste
  Stimulating business growth
  Generating job opportunities

1 Source: World Resources Institute

Our circular approach

In keeping with our focus on circular economy principles, we are working to increase our use of renewable energy and eliminate waste through superior product and process design. As an example, we are increasingly beneficiating waste. This not only helps to mitigate environmental impact, but also, as with reducing purchased energy use, it brings down costs and can generate additional revenue. The least desirable method of solid waste disposal from an environmental perspective is landfill. Organic waste emits methane, a greenhouse gas with 28 times the global warming potential of CO2 while inorganic waste can leach, resulting in soil, surface and/ or groundwater pollution.

Over five years, globally, we have reduced specific waste to landfill by 7.3%. During this period, the amount of solid waste combusted for heat use increased by 5.5% and the percentage of beneficially used waste by 10.9%, with the quantity of waste beneficiated standing at 75.3%.

Our focus: recovery and re-use

Key developments in 2020

In 2020, we increased the percentage of solid waste beneficiated from 72.1% in 2019 to 75.3%. This meant that waste sent to landfill decreased by 7.6% year-on-year. Recognising that our sphere of influence extends beyond our mill gates, we work collaboratively across the supply chain to share best practices and drive meaningful change. As examples, in 2020 we worked with members of the textile value chain to assess the use of recovered textiles in pulping and also continued work as the co-lead of the committee operating under the auspices of the Alliance for Pulp and Paper Technology Innovation (APPTI) to demonstrate and deploy membrane-based technology for black liquor. Other members of the committee include the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), members of the US forest products industry and membrane system/ process developers.

  Stanger Mill in South Africa uses bagasse (sugar cane waste residue) as an input material. The is depithed, and the pith given to farmers as a soil enhancer.

Beneficial use of solid waste (%)

Globally, there was an increase. In SEU, the increase was due to Condino Mill reusing the fibre planet sludges to produce various products. Beneficial use also increased at Carmignano and Lanaken Mills. In SNA, the increase in beneficial use was driven by Somerset Mill – the result of an increase in the rate of burning of own bark for steam generation following the woodroom upgrade. In SSA, the increase was due to Saiccor and Tugela Mills beneficiating more wood waste and Ngodwana Mill increasing ash sales.



It depends

There is a place for both virgin and recycled fibre, depending on end use: The primary environmental benefit of using recycled fibre – which can only be recycled five to seven times, depending on the paper grade – is that keeping fibre out of landfill reduces landfill volume and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with decomposition. Virgin fibres have a significant strength advantage because recycled fibres are shorter in length than virgin fibres, which makes the paper more susceptible to breakage and also makes it less absorbent

Closing the loop requires both

Each time fibre is recycled, it becomes shorter and weaker. We need to introduce virgin pulp into paper production to maintain the strength and quality of the fibres. In this way, recovered and virgin fibres complement each other ecologically and economically. Without virgin fibre, the recycled paper loop would come to a stop.

The paper application matters

Optimising the life of recovered fibres requires use in the right applications. For instance, higher quality paper products requiring brightness and low contamination should use virgin fibres. Using recovered fibres for these applications requires too much processing with adverse impacts on energy and water consumption, waste generation and the recovery yield from the fibres.

Recovered fibre in South Africa

Sappi ReFibre has developed an outsourced business model that recovers large volumes of paper and benefits members of the informal sector. This aligns with our focus on shared value, whereby we promote win-win partnerships with entrepreneurs and communities. Ngodwana and Tugela Mills have waste plants that treat recovered board and paper for the manufacture of linerboard and fluting for onward conversion into cartons and boxes.

Global breakdown of solid waste types in Sappi (%) (2020)

Global breakdown of “other” solid waste types in Sappi (%) (2020)

As indicated above, we generate very little hazardous waste, 1.16% of the total. This is closely controlled and carefully managed, both at our operations and the receiving facilities.


Please refer to Our 2020 Planet indicators on www.sappi.com/ 2020GSDR-Planet-indicators for these and other graphs detailing

  • Total weight of waste by type and disposal method
  • Specific landfilled waste

Circularity in action: gaining traction

Becoming more eco-effective at Condino Mill

Surrounded by the scenic mountains and forests of Trentino in northern Italy, the over 130 employees at Condino Mill are especially conscious of their environment. Finding ways to become more eco-effective —reducing waste, emissions and maximising material and resource use — is a challenge they have embraced with enthusiasm and ingenuity.

In 2020, the mill achieved a major eco-effective win by turning sludge that would normally go to landfill, into a valuable new resource for the construction industry. Reflecting the pure nature of Glassine, one of the main paper grades produced from Condino, the mill's sludge is rich in fibre with low chemical content and other additives.

The mill found the right partner to leverage the value of the sludge in La Società Specialised Polymers Industry (SPI), an award-winning start-up that is making waves by turning paper-making sludge into thermal insulation panels for use in buildings. By transforming the sludge into a building material that will last for years, this is an eco-effective solution with long-term benefit. Preparing the sludge for SPI also requires relatively little energy. The mill only presses it to remove some of the water, without having to dry it completely as normally required in recycling processes. Since SPI is located in the region, carbon emissions during transport are also minimal.

Doing more with less at Kirkniemi Mill

Resource efficiency is key in all operations at Kirkniemi Mill. We make more efficient use of resources throughout the life cycle of our products, starting with product development.

Sappi has launched a product from the Kirkniemi Mill based on the new Spraytec coating technology. With the technology, the product has a unique combination of high bulk and gloss. The customer can choose a lower paper base weight while maintaining the thickness and feel of their publication. The printed product becomes lighter and less tonnage of paper is needed.

Thanks to Kirkniemi’s own product development work, the environmental impact during the product’s life cycle is reduced when less raw material is used to produce a printing surface that meets the customer’s needs, and the environmental impact of its transportation and final product distribution is reduced. The introduction of new coating technology has also reduced the need for drying energy on the machine line.

Reclaiming and reusing caustic at Somerset Mill

Somerset Mill’s undertook a project was undertaken to reduce the volume of purchased caustic, lower the cost of its boiler flue-gas desulphurisation (FGD), reduce a large source of chemical usage in the mill’s operation and offset the acid usage in its onsite waste treatment plant.

Why caustic?

The mill operates as a large steam plant, using a large volume of demineralised water as a main water source for its recovery boiler and two multi-fuel power boilers. Demineralised water has traditionally been generated by an ion exchange process that relies on periodic regeneration of resin beads with a caustic solution of sodium hydroxide.

The innovative solution

The mill designed and installed a system to create on-site a 4% caustic solution that supplies the ion exchange unit for regeneration and a 3% caustic solution to displace purchased caustic in a power boiler FGD scrubber.

The benefits

Benefits include reductions in:

The result? A more diluted scrubber than the industry standard, thereby enhancing the mill’s competitive 3P advantage.

Shortly after year end, this initiative was a winner in the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) annual Better Practices, Better Planet 2020 Sustainability Awards that recognise exemplary sustainability programmes and initiatives in the paper and wood products manufacturing industry. https://afandpa.org/media/ news/2020/11/13/af-pa-announces-awardwinning- sustainability-projects

Sappi North America honoured with the SEAL Business Sustainability Award

In 2020, Cloquet Mill was named a winner in the 2019 SEAL Business Sustainability Awards for Environmental Leadership. The award celebrates companies for their leadership, transparency, and commitment to sustainable business, and honours specific environmental and sustainability initiatives.

The mill received the award for its land application programme, initiated in 2004 with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s ag-lime program and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency as a solution to an impending challenge with landfill space. Essentially, the programme repurposes boiler ash and lime mud by-products into sustainable agricultural fertiliser that is accessible to the local community at a minimal cost. This reduces the commercial chemical products needed for high-quality growing conditions in the region.

To date, SNA has provided 200 tons of materials to 300 sites per year, with some farmers seeing a 30% increase in crop yield.

Making smart decisions at Saiccor Mill

As part of the recent woodyard upgrade at Saiccor Mill, scalping screens were installed for the removal of slivers from the woodchips. On commissioning slivers, it was noticed that a large amount of ‘good’ chips were carried over with slivers and subsequently disposed as woodyard waste to landfills. Through continuous sliver observations, investigations, as well as trial and error, the Saiccor team came up with the idea of installing retention bars on the scalping screens.

Between October 2019 and January 2020, the woodyard disposed on average 2,600 tons per month. After the implementation of the retention bars, the sliver pile tonnage reduced to an average of 240 tons per month. That meant that around 2,360 tons of acceptable chips were retained in the process.

This simple, inexpensive, but highly effective solution that cost approximately ZAR10,000 saved the mill about ZAR30 million per annum in terms of waste disposal and timber loss costs.