Even as more people reach for laptops, tablets and smartphones to read news or send email, a long paper trail still stretches across the globe.

“When we look at printing paper, we’re seeing a decline, but where we don’t see a decline is in those paper products that are more tissue-like – sanitary napkins, paper towels, toilet paper, and facial tissue,” says Amber Armstrong, Indigenous and community engagement facilitator with the Peace River Pulp Division (PRPD) of Daishowa-Marubeni International (DMI) Ltd.

PRPD is part of a trend among the province’s seven pulp and paper mills to establish some of the industry’s most environmentally friendly and diverse operations. These mills are increasingly using responsible harvesting practices, implementing power generation initiatives and identifying new uses for by-products.

PRPD opened its doors in 1990 and is located just north of Peace River, a town of more than 6,500 people in the treed landscape of northwest Alberta and approximately 500 kilometres from Edmonton. The mill ships its premium hardwood and softwood pulp to the United States, China, Korea, Europe, and Japan.

“We look at innovation, which is critical to stay relevant and competitive, and how to streamline and be efficient,” Armstrong says.

Photograph courtesy of Peace River Pulp Division

One aspect of that efficiency is logging. DMI uses the whole tree – branches, tops, sawdust – instead of leaving parts that do not make pulp behind on the forest floor. DMI transports these scrap tree parts and burns them in a power boiler to create energy, decreasing the company’s need for natural gas and reducing its carbon footprint.

DMI also reuses a biosolid created during 
the pulp-making process, something it began investigating in the mid-1990s.

“It’s a natural part of our process that makes the biosolid,” Armstrong says. “Then we put it on our trucks and transport it – for free – to farmers’ fields before spreading it on their land and tilling it under.”
This biosolid conversion helps farmers and lowers costs for DMI by trucking the biosolid to nearby end-users rather than landfills. This initiative is a key reason PRPD was acknowledged as one of the Alberta government’s EnviroVista Program inaugural members in 2005.

EnviroVista is a voluntary program that recognizes Alberta industrial and manufacturing facilities for their environmental excellence. To qualify as an EnviroVista Leader, a facility must demonstrate a minimum of five years of approved emissions performance, have an audited environmental management system in place and no Alberta Environment prosecutions in the past five years. PRPD went on to be recognized under this program several more times since its first award.

While PRPD looks for ways to make positive environmental and social impacts, its business strategy is to find a cost advantage before anything is implemented.

“It can’t be about economics at the price of the environment or social development and change,” Armstrong says. “You can’t have success with one over the other.”

In 2011, PRPD added a condensing steam turbine generator to its mill that produces over 400,000 megawatts of power annually. The generator helps the mill be self-sufficient for its energy needs. In addition, the company exports enough power each year to light up over 7,000 homes.

“It’s about looking at opportunities with curiosity,” Armstrong says. “You can be very resistant to change and focus on the impossibilities as opposed to understanding that advancement comes with being curious.”

That curiosity to find diversification is common among mills in Alberta.

Troy Grainger, executive director of Grizzly Regional Economic Alliance Society (GROWTH Alberta), a regional economic development alliance of 10 municipalities in north central Alberta, says the pulp industry is full of entrepreneurs who always look for opportunities, much like Alberta Newsprint Company (ANC) in Woodlands County, a forested area in western Alberta about 300 kilometres south of Peace River.

ANC produces a significant amount of North America’s newsprint but adjusted as the demand for newsprint dwindled.

“They are diversifying into other sectors while being a mentor to other industry partners,” Grainger says, noting that ANC oversees an industrial incubator it developed to facilitate cross-industry synergies and innovation.

Armstrong says the goal for PRPD is to be a low-cost, high-quality producer of world-class pulp but to do it in a way that supports the challenges and opportunities coming its way – including being a lead and ambassador for the industry.

“We’ve had some really good research in the past and we want to be that giant for people to stand on our shoulders and advance it further,” Armstrong says.