IT MIGHT just be a napkin, but if it’s made by SCA then it’s been a generation in the making. Jackie Mitchell travels to Sweden to find out more.
The harvester works at an extraordinary speed, cutting down two spruce trees a minute. From May to July, when it is almost always light here, the huge machine can be running for nigh on 24 hours a day. But it will never run out of trees.
“It is forbidden to harvest more than grows back,” explains Rolf Edström, communications manager for SCA – the world’s third largest producer of tissue products such as kitchen roll, toilet paper and napkins. “If you fell trees, you are responsible for their regrowth. This is imprinted in the mind of everyone who works in the forest industry.”
We are in northern Sweden, near Sundsvall, in the middle of a forest owned by SCA, watching the first phase in the production process from tree to tissue. The company has 2.6m hectares of forest land in all and uses 2m hectares for forestry. Crucially, one tree in 10 will never be felled and SCA replaces every tree it cuts down with three new ones. Certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), SCA adheres to its strict procedures, but also invests 200m Swedish kronor (£19m) annually in its nature conservation programme.
After harvesting, a “forwarder” machine picks up the logs before they are loaded ready for transporting. Rail is used because it is “45% cheaper and more eco-friendly”. The material is split into several areas – newsprint, paper for magazines and pulp. Worldwide demand for newsprint is reducing rapidly “so we are switching from producing normal newsprint to paper used for glossy magazines, especially IT ones”, says Edström.
SCA harvests up to 5m cubic metres of wood every year and buys 3m cubic metres from other forest owners. A tree takes 100 years to grow enough to be felled “and that’s why we have to forecast well in advance”, says Edström. It is an intriguing situation, with current employees growing trees that will be harvested well after their lifetimes. To ensure there’s enough for generations beyond this one, the seedlings have to be nurtured – 100m of them every year. In the grounds of SCA’s NorrPlant nursery, Edström shows me a luscious pine tree, which he says grew from a branch. Pine and spruce are the most common species, though SCA grows birch as well. There are 18 greenhouses which are filled four times in the season. Sowing starts in March. Snow, apparently, is good for the seedlings – so much so that SCA can produce it artificially if need be.
Snow also doesn’t halt the harvesting process or the truckloads of pine, spruce, aspen and birch that arrive at the mill. Each part of every tree is used. Some is even used to power the mill: 1,600m kronor has been invested in a new recovery boiler and turbine, which have cut carbon emissions by 80% in the last 12 months and increased pulp production by 10,000 tonnes a year. The system also heats nearby houses known as the “timber community”.
And finally to the warehouse, where giant reels of paper are stored. There are 13 product lines – four consumer products and nine “away from home” (foodservice) tissue products. But then I find this isn’t where the journey ends. For the foodservice sector, SCA produces a range of Tork tissue products, and the company’s dispensers are designed to control usage and to minimise time. For example, with the Tork N4 Interfold Napkin system, consumers can only pick one napkin at a time, thus cutting down on napkin consumption by a minimum of 25%. But it’s not like they will run out of trees.