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Sun, Feb 25, 2024 17:53
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A future in paper clothes?

Well, not exactly, but there is a current surge in the market for textile-grade cellulose that offers some interesting possibilities for pulp mills.

There used to be a dozen or more pulp mills in the United States making dissolving grades of kraft or sulfite pulp, but most have closed down over the past 30 years. The situation has been similar in the other pulp manufacturing countries, until a few years ago, when Aditya Birla, the Indian aluminum and textile giant, appeared in Canada and resurrected the sulfite mill at Atholville, New Brunswick, to produce viscose grade pulp, which is the raw material for various textiles, most notably rayon.

Since then, the same company purchased control of the former Parsons and Whittemore kraft mill at Nackawic, New Brunswick, and converted it to making viscose grade pulp. Several other companies have increased production of dissolving grades for textile fiber production, or are planning such investments.

The economists tell us that the driving forces are high oil prices, which increase the costs of petroleum-based fibers, and high prices for cotton. World cotton production is decreasing, particularly in China, which is by far the largest user, with consumption greater than the total consumption of the second through sixth next largest consumers. In addition, expenditure on apparel in China is booming, as a rapidly increasing proportion of their population rises toward our standard of living.

The economists’ figures are presumably accurate, and show that booming China is probably a good future market for more kinds of wood pulp than the currently popular papermaking grades.

However, I wonder how much of the current boom in dissolving pulp is due to new, more dynamic management. The above mentioned Aditya Birla group of India recently reported, “In 1995, the average age of our management cadre was 56 years. Today, it is down to 36. There were few women executives. Today, they account for 17 per cent of the management and supervisory cadre.

That represents a dramatic change in corporate culture. No North American pulp and paper company could come close. As a 67-year-old male, I feel quite comfortable saying that we need a lot more younger people, and more women in management, if we are to compete with the rest of the world. When I am in South American mills I am struck by how much younger the managers are at all levels than I see in mills at home, or at the few North American conferences that I now attend.

Petroleum fibers took over a huge fraction of the market from natural fibers such as wool, and from wood pulp-based viscose fibers such as rayon, over the past 50 years. Of course, some of the petroleum fibers had arguably superior properties and/or price, but I wonder how much of their success was due to the youth and imagination of the young people in a young industry who bypassed the pulp and paper companies in technical innovation and marketing.

The North American pulp and paper industry has attracted relatively few young people since about 1990. I am shocked when I attend TAPPI or PAPTAC conferences and realize that I am not outstandingly old. The Scandinavian industry has recruited aggressively in the universities for years, and has a younger age profile, but none of the university students and recent graduates I meet in Canada through my sons have heard of pulp and paper industry recruiters.

Each company in the sub-sector of the North American pulp industry manufacturing dissolving grades has always been very jealous of its own know-how. Their employees do not attend conferences, and little is published about their work. I am far from an expert in dissolving pulp, but chance has led me to seeing the inside of more dissolving pulp processes than most engineers. What I have seen has convinced me that secrecy has hurt the mills much more than it has helped them. Perhaps we will see some innovation in dissolving pulp driven from outside, by companies whose management team members have an average age of 36 years. Otherwise, we need to waken up and pull young people into the industry and give them scope to work.

Returning to paper clothes, there seems to be an opportunity for innovation in product development to replace some of the cotton and petroleum fibers. We have too many smallish mills making paper-grade pulp, that are headed for closure if not modernized. Some, at least, would be good candidates for Nackawic-style conversion. Will this be by the present owners, or by overseas expertise? To the towns and people dependent on these mills, it does not matter. Employees I have met in the Indian-owned mills are quite happy with their owners.

World cotton consumption is around 25 million tons/year, so replacing some of this with wood pulp-based fibers would create a larger demand for pulp than some of the more exotic, but tiny, niche-market products that are being developed.


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