Business & Economy

Using waste materials, one Colombian paper mill’s sustainable model

Gachancipa, Colombia, Aug 11 (EFE).- In Gachancipa, 43 kilometers (27 miles) from Bogota, is Colombia’s first paper mill with a “zero waste” certification, a facility that uses 99.4 percent of its industrial waste in non-conventional initiatives like making compost and bricks.

Colombia’s dumps and sanitary landfills, where thousands of tons of trash wind up each day, are no longer a sustainable alternative for disposing of everyday trash, and even less so for the paper industry, which generates more than 600,000 tons of solid residue each year.

That is why Softys Colombia, the owner of hygiene and personal care brands such as Elite, is offering innovative alternatives to other companies in an alliance with local providers so that they can use their waste as raw materials, to create energy or to manufacture water retaining equipment and containers.

Using a circular type of economic system, which is also being used at the Santander de Quilichao plant in southwestern Colombia, where 96.5 percent of the waste is reused, Softys provides more than 12,000 indirect jobs due to the fact that approximately 90 percent of its raw materials comes from recycled paper.

“All these initiatives have been made so that we can obtain the gold quality zero waste certificate,” the general manager for Softys Colombia, Andres Ortega, told EFE, emphasizing that the company’s plan is to move to 100 percent waste utilization.

The firm has established three targets: reducing its use of water by 40 percent by 2025, reducing the greenhouses gases it emits by 50 percent by 2030 and getting to zero waste into dumps by 2025.

For the past decade, Softys Colombia has provided a “second life” for about 34,000 tons of waste that it generates each year. It does this by forging alliances with other industries that use compost for agriculture and incorporate the paper mill residue consisting of cellulose fibers that cannot be recycled into making bricks.

The paper mill residue, which represents 90 percent of the waste turned out by the Gachancipa plant, is mixed with brick clay, thus helping the manufacturers to use less clay and the bricks to be lighter while maintaining their strength and hardness.

In addition, just 10 percent of the raw material used by Softys Colombia to make hygienic paper products, napkins and kitchen towels comes from virgin cellulose, and this also has an FSC certification guaranteeing sustainable production.

“You have to stop looking at waste as trash because ultimately it’s transformed into raw materials and supplies for other industries. During 2020, we used approximately 45,000 tons of recycled paper, while only using about 4,200 (tons) of virgin fiber,” Ramiro Russi, the head of sustainability for Softys Colombia, told EFE.

This sustainable strategy benefits thousands of recyclers who provide a large part of the raw material the firm uses.

The zero waste certificate, which is provided by the Colombian Institute for Technical Regulations and Certification (Icontec), does not mean that the companies receiving it generate no waste at all, but rather than they have constantly improving systems in place to prevent the waste they do put out from ending up in landfills.

To achieve that, Softys, from its headquarters in Chile, has implemented a regional sustainability strategy that adheres to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, an environmental policy under which zero waste certification is just the beginning.

Ortega said that the most important thing “is the commitment one gets” with the certification since it’s not something you can acquire overnight but rather “you have to maintain it over time” and even improve it.

“The challenge we have is to continue perfecting our processes. We’re still a tiny fraction shy of 100 percent at Gachancipa. It’s a really small amount but I’m sure that new initiatives will keep arising to continue moving forward on that project,” he said.

The commitment is not limited to second use of industrial waste materials. The company is also working to ensure that the cellulose it uses in its processes is obtained responsibly.

“We’re taking the water and incorporating it into our production processes, we’re transforming the cellulose into paper and the same content, the same volume of water we’re returning to the environment. However, we want to reduce that by 40 percent,” Ortega said.

He added that not all consumers would be ready to pay more for a sustainable product, but they would stop buying one that was being made in an environmentally irresponsible way.

“We’re continuing to work on other environmentally progressive and sustainable initiatives because the most important thing in these certifications is evolving in a positive way,” he said.


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