Taking advantage of raw materials from the forest to produce dissolving pulp will later close the textile industry loop. The story of Södra and the OnceMore initiative
Södra has more than eighty years of experience in sustainable forestry and over 53,000 members who own forest estates in Southern Sweden. Their members contribute to their business, influence the future, and share their profits to create long-term values and conditions. The trees are a resource to be used and not overused; instead harnessed in the sustainable way. 70 percent of their members hold FSC and PEFC certification where their operations are reviewed and rated internally using a Green Balance Sheet. Annica Larsson Ahlstedt, OnceMore’s Project Manager, discusses how Södra’s team believes in the importance of forests for a sustainable bio-economy; one that does not require exploitation of natural resources, and instead creates symbiotic and cyclical processes. They focus on working «from planting the seedlings in the forest and then taking care of them for their lifespan of nearly seventy years», says Ahlstedt. In doing this and paying attention to the complex ecosystem at play, they are able to harvest in a profitable and sustainable way. Globally, we produce 150 billion pieces of clothing, 30 percent of which is never sold. As a resource, waste textiles have been shown to have potential uses in creating cellulose fibers. Södra, a large forest industry group based in Sweden has shown innovation in utilizing this waste to create a viable cellulose pulp product.
Södra’s net climate change is positive as the potential CO2 uptake of their forests is higher than that released in Sweden; climate emissions in Sweden equate to approximately 53 million tonnes of CO2 per year, while the climate-change impact of Swedish forestry is 93 million tonnes of CO2. Growing trees bind carbon dioxide, and the forest itself helps to replace fossil minerals in the soil. Södra has begun to create new and sustainable climate-smart products based on renewable raw materials from the forest. They aim to use every part of the tree and have created sustainable products in the area of sawn timber, paper, textiles, chemicals, and energy. Their innovation relies on collaboration with their customers, external networks of universities, and research institutes so as to utilize a variety of skill bases. In doing this, they have provided innovation within the field of textiles, using recycled poly-cotton blended with their dissolving pulp fiber to produce their OnceMore pulp. They were the first company globally to recycle such large volumes of blended recycled textiles.
Södra has been taking advantage of raw materials from the forest to make paper pulp for many years. The concept for recycling textiles arose from the knowledge that paper recycling was accessible, yet there was nothing in place for textiles; «half of the paper that has been used in the world comes from recycled fibers. We were surprised that there was not a similar initiative in place for the large quantities of textile waste», says Ahlstedt. Having the infrastructure in place, they had an existing mill site where they saw the possibility to scale production quickly. In 2019, the innovation team at Södra decided to expand its small-scale lab trials to the production level. «We had a mill scale trial where we used 20 tonnes of used textiles (equivalent to around 55,000 jumpers). This was successful, so we have been able to increase our facility to handle 300 tonnes each year; a number that we are hoping to maximize on». Utilizing their existing Mörrun mill, where dissolving pulp production occurs, Södra has been able to manufacture their recycled OnceMore product alongside dissolving pulp.
Södra’s innovation in the OnceMore cellulose-based pulp aims to enable recycled textiles to become a part of the circular economy. Ahlstedt was not able to discuss the chemical process in detail, as there are restrictions over who has access to the knowledge. However, she was able to highlight how the process itself involves combining wood cellulose with textile waste to create a pure, high-quality dissolving pulp that can be used to produce new clothing and other textile products. The raw material itself is both recycled and renewable so that «when we reuse textiles, we can replace fossil fuel-based materials». The recycled pulp consists of a high alpha-cellulose that can be used for textile applications; it is easy to process with high brightness and it emulates the quality, purity, and dissolving pulp properties used for viscose and lyocell production.
While other recycled textile companies rely on 100 percent cotton, as they lack the proper infrastructure to cope with blended materials, Södra can use poly-cotton; one of the most widely used blends. They require a minimum of 50 percent cotton content in their blend and can separate the polyester for other uses. Once the polyester has been removed from the blend, its production has a high yield; more than 90 percent of the cotton input is available for use. When launched in 2019, OnceMore pulp contained 3 percent recycled textiles, but this has now increased to 20 percent. With this step, the OnceMore pulp received Recycled Claim Standard (RCS) certification earlier in the year to indicate that their products contain recycled textiles. RCS aims to increase the use of recycled materials within a textile, acting as a promise to customers that recycled cotton has been added to the blend.
To close the loop, the polyester ‘waste’ is currently used for energy production in the mill. Production of OnceMore is nearly fossil fuel-free, relying mainly on wood as a renewable resource for fuel. «When we start up, after a period of not having the production line running, we will need to use some fossil fuels; otherwise, we can just use renewables. We have efficient machinery, meaning that we do not need large quantities of energy to make it run», states Ahlstedt. Apart from the high input of energy required, the pulp mill relies on wood for its fuel, using wood waste products such as lignin to enable its self-sufficiency. Currently, their combined electricity generation from waste polyester and renewable wood sources exceeds their consumption, which allows for energy to be sold to local towns and villages.
Despite Södra relying on sustainability and renewable energy, Ahlstedt highlights the inevitable impacts on the environment of their «chemical industry». By relying on long-standing mills, Södra understands the ways to decrease negative environmental effects. «We have strict regulations with respect to the chemicals that we use, and which of these we can release into the environment», says Ahlstedt. They have been able to draw on existing knowledge, as well as being open to adapting to this new pulp. «We are in the beginning of the development journey; OnceMore is a new material for us to produce, and used textiles are different from wood in many ways».
Södra goes one step further with their forestry and looks to use every part of the tree throughout their various production steps to reduce their environmental impact and increase their competitiveness. They are working towards a circular economy with their wood production and the production of the OnceMore pulp. «We are also trying to extract different bio-products from our trees to sell. We can see how the community is transforming from fossil-based to bio-based». With the desire to utilize waste products within every part of their production line, Södra has been providing innovation in harnessing wood-based chemicals. Ahlstedt continues saying, «lignin, for instance, is one part that we are looking into extracting which can be used to make active coal or carbon fiber, that is currently being produced from fossil fuels».
With their recycled pulp, Södra wants to go further than being climate-neutral. While a fully-closed global textile loop might not be possible, Södra has shown that they can make many factions of production and the chemicals involved circular. «We have quite a closed system using a recovery loop for our main chemical that we use to separate the wood components in our digesters. We have based our processes with this in mind to ensure as little wastage as possible». This circularity is possible in using renewable material such as wood, as there are many components that can be used, including the end ‘waste’ product. «The ash produced at the end is difficult to dispose of; however, we are looking into using these to give back to the soil for the forest to take up nutrients, where they will be recirculated back into our production process». Ahlstedt believes that sustainability in fashion goes beyond the producer; «we need a pull effect from the consumer asking for sustainable materials; it is about having the demand in place. We use many clothes today, we need to think differently about how to use them and demand that authorities implement systems to take care of our textile waste». Consumer influence has already been seen as the EU has pledged to stop textile waste going into landfill or being incinerated by 2025.
In working ‘together’ with their members and customers, Södra paves the way to create sustainable value chains from raw material to final product, from seed to customer. They work towards ‘closing the loop’ in their production and have found ways to utilize the renewable forests prevalent in Sweden to do so. While this might be a drop in the ocean, they hope that the rest of the textile supply-chain will follow their precedent to make recycled textiles a norm.IMAGE GALLERY
Sodra | OnceMore
SE-351 89 Växjö