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. 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.
March 22, 2013
by Heather Clancy, via Greenbiz
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
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.
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
“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
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
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
“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
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),
Rather than attempt to develop NCC on its own, Domtar teamed up with
forestry research organization FPInnovations to create a joint venture
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
“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
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.