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Pure progress

Feb 1, 2009 12:00 AM


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Portugal is a buoyant country. Maybe it's all the cork grown there, which is used for everything from wine bottling to clothing. Its friendly inhabitants can listen to sorrowful fado singers all night and return to work cheerfully in the morning. When an earthquake and tsunami destroyed the capital city of Lisbon in 1755, they rebuilt. When they were suffering under a dictatorship in 1974, they overthrew it in one day and kicked off an annual “Dia da Liberdade” (“Freedom Day”) festival. As we say here in the United States — when life hands them lemons, they make lemonade.

Eucalyptus globulus trees, native to Australia, were introduced in Portugal during the 19th century. Eucalyptus is a vigorous, non-native plant that would be considered an invasive species if it weren't for the Portuguese propensity for innovation. The country's major pulp and paper producer, Grupo Portucel Soporcel, currently manages 296,000 acres of forest, 74% of which is eucalyptus. Product manager Pedro Silva touts eucalyptus globulus as superior to any of the hundreds of other eucalyptus subspecies — and other tree species — for the production of high-quality paper. And as a fast-growing hardwood, it has short fibers that impart numerous benefits to the finished product.

Sustainability and ecofriendly initiatives rank high on Grupo Portucel Soporcel's list of priorities. Following Forest Stewardship Council certification for most of its forests in 2007, the company is in the process of obtaining the global Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) accreditation. It is participating in European initiatives to stop the reduction of biodiversity by 2010, including a program to protect Bonelli's Eagle, which sometimes nests in eucalyptus trees (the harvesters leave those trees undisturbed). Grupo Portucel Soporcel maintains strict control over its eucalyptus propagation and also has its own fire brigade. The company spent more than $9.6 million (U.S.) on fire fighting and prevention over the past three years. Its mills use forest biomass as the main source of fuel for the energy produced onsite (92% as of 2007). In fact, the group currently is the largest national producer of biomass energy, using would-be waste materials from the logs and pulping process as fuel. Since 2000, the group reports it has cut carbon dioxide fossil emissions from its mills by 58%.

Grupo Portucel Soporcel's facilities are nearing completion on a major upgrade, and the company has big plans for the near future.

Consistent product, biodiverse setting

“Grupo Portucel Soporcel is very focused on biodiversity,” says Carmen Correia, forest engineer at Viveiros Aliança, the group's tree nursery on its Herdade de Espirra, a 4,200-acre estate south of Lisbon. In addition to its main crop — eucalyptus globulus for paper — the estate grows wine grapes, cork trees, oak, stone pine (a source of pine nuts) and ornamental plants. Its Herdade de Espirra wine has won several prizes in Portugal and internationally.

Purchased by Portucel in 1985, the estate staff includes a team dedicated to the genetic improvement of eucalyptus. Grupo Portucel Soporcel holds a majority stake in RAIZ, a private, non-profit forest and paper research institute responsible for the research nursery and seed orchard at the Espirra estate. RAIZ also has a molecular genetics lab.

“Our eucalyptus globulus trees are clones, but they are not genetically engineered or modified,” Correia explains. “We copy the best tree by taking cuttings from parent plants.” Cuttings grow into clones of the tree from which they were cut, as opposed to seeds, which develop into new specimens with their own characteristics. Cloning enables the forest engineers to ensure the consistency of the logs they will eventually harvest for paper production.

Correia's team takes cuttings each spring from the highest quality trees and carefully cultivates them for future transplanting out into the forest, as well as testing. They also grow some new trees from seed, seeking the highest quality eucalyptus globulus specimens to crossbreed and clone.

The eucalyptus globulus forest occupies approximately 1,675 acres on the estate. The trees are cut up to three times, over the years, as new trunks can grow from the stumps of harvested trees. The bark, leaves and other parts that are not used for paper production fuel the mills' biomass cogeneration plants.

State-of-the-art mills

Grupo Portucel Soporcel has three mills, in Setúbal, Figueira da Foz and Cacia, Portugal. Their combined size and advanced technology have earned them benchmark status. The Figueira da Foz mill is the largest uncoated paper integrated industrial facility in Europe, producing pulp that is manufactured into paper onsite. Almost all of the paper produced is sheeted for offset as well as digital printing.

The Cacia pulp mill was the site for early innovation using the Kraft process to pulp eucalyptus trees, beginning in 1957.

And in Setúbal, the group's other integrated manufacturing facility produces bleached eucalyptus pulp and paper.

The three production sites generated, in 2007, a surplus of 6% in energy that was sold to the national grid.

A new paper machine — the group's fourth, dubbed the PM4 — being built at Setúbal's site is expected to begin operation in August 2009. It will be the world's largest and most sophisticated machine for producing uncoated woodfree paper, says Silva, and it will have a capacity of 551,000 (short) tons of paper per year.

“We went as far as we could,” Silva says, regarding the automation of this new paper machine. The company is dedicated to streamlining production, as well as ensuring the quality and consistency of its product through the use of state-of-the-art technology.

A notable characteristic at the Figueira da Foz site is the lack of that paper-mill smell. Eucalyptus is wonderfully fragrant, but like any other tree, it contains lignin — a tar-like substance with a distinct odor. As lignin is removed during the pulping process at Figueira da Foz, it is recovered and sent to fuel the onsite biomass cogeneration plant.

The company is building two new biomass cogeneration power plants at the Setúbal and Cacia sites, which will close the loop on waste generated during the pulping and papermaking process, company-wide.

Elemental chlorine free

Papers made from eucalyptus globulus achieve high quality due to the shortness and quality of the fibers. Grupo Portucel Soporcel's 1,257,000 (short) tons of paper per year consist of approximately 70% cellulose, 20% filler (precipitated calcium carbonate), 5% chemical additives and 4-6% water. The short fibers enable this low filler content, reducing performance issues such as dusting and curling. Additionally, the high density of fibers per gram results in exceptional opacity and formation.

Eucalyptus globulus cellulose has a thick wall, providing stiffness and bulk to the paper. “The high dimensional stability of this fiber helps prevent register problems on press,” says Silva.

The papers also are elemental chlorine free. Eucalyptus is a hardwood, so it has less lignin than, for example, pine. It can be milled into pulp and bleached efficiently with less harsh chemicals.

The company also incorporates recycled fibers into its papers. “Recycling should be done in a cascade, from products with more demanding characteristics and longer life cycles into products that are progressively less demanding and shorter lived,” says Silva. “Paper fibers can be recycled a maximum of six times,” he notes, citing the degradation of fiber quality and its effect on the finished product. He suggests as an example 100% virgin fiber for high-end commercial printing, 30% post-consumer waste (PCW) fiber for everyday printed products, 50% PCW for printed packaging, and 100% PCW for newspapers.

Looking ahead to 2010

Grupo Portucel Soporcel is in the No. 1 spot among European paper producers, generating 1,488,000 (short) tons of pulp per year, using the majority for its own paper production and selling the rest to other paper producers.

The addition of the PM4 paper machine will increase the company's total paper production capacity to approximately 1.5 million (short) tons per year. As paper production increases following the PM4 startup, the company does not plan to exit the pulp market, but it will decrease the quantity of pulp sold to other paper makers.

The PM4 will enable Grupo Portucel Soporcel to grow paper sales in its main strategic markets, including North America and Europe. Soporcel North America's stock availability will increase progressively after the PM4 begins production.

Silva is bullish about the market for paper, despite the recent downturn in the global economy. “When one of our paper machines is running, there is always an order behind it. We do four hours of maintenance per month, and three to four days of maintenance downtime once per year. But no machine has ever had to stop for commercial reasons.”


Denise Kapel is managing editor for AMERICAN PRINTER. Contact her at dkapel@americanprinter.com.

Soporcel North America

Grupo Portucel Soporcel's division serving the United States market, Soporcel North America, is headquartered in Norwalk, CT. The company has five distribution platforms across the United States. Sales manager Jason Horst emphasizes that each location maintains identical stock and a continuous supply, rather than long-term storage.

Soporset (www.soporset-usa.com), Navigator (www.navigator-usa.com) and Discovery (www.discovery-paper.com) are the brands offered in North America. Soporset is a premium offset sheet available in 40-lb. to 80-lb. basis weights and in sizes ranging from 8.5 × 11 to 28 × 40 inches. The Navigator line is divided into three products: Premium Multipurpose 20-lb. and 24-lb. sheets in sizes from 8.5 × 11 to 11 × 14 inches; Platinum 20-lb. to 32-lb. sheets for more demanding applications, in sizes from 8.5 × 11 to 12 × 18 inches; and Premium Recycled, a 20-lb., 8.5 × 11-inch sheet that contains 30% PCW, 45% recycled paper production waste and 25% virgin fiber. Discovery is available in all common office paper sizes for digital black-and-white or color printing. It comes in 20-lb. and 24-lb. basis weights.

Expect to hear more from this company as it ramps up production heading into 2010.