Boxing clever: better ways to recycle paper and cardboard

A Spanish and Portuguese partnership set out to tap a lucrative global market, improving the quality of paper recycled as often as eight times.

If you’re reading this article on a mobile device, you may be surprised to learn that demand for paper and cardboard is massive and rising. We may not be buying as many newspapers any more but more packaging is needed for all that online shopping.

Paper and cardboard production could increase by 100 million tonnes in the seven years to 2020, forecast consultancy McKinsey in a 2013 report, and much of the demand comes from emerging markets like China. Demand for recycled paper is particularly high. “The world needs fresh supplies of recycled fibre just to stand still, let alone meet new demand”, wrote analysts Per-Ove Nordström and Glen O’Kelly.

’Since starting the project in 2009, we’ve doubled our sales’ – Josep Lluis Bisbal, head of speciality chemicals, Kemira

Applied chemicals specialists Kemira spotted a way to tap this growing market by solving one of the problems of recycling paper. The more often paper is recycled, the more its quality deteriorates. “People don’t want wrinkly paper or pizza boxes that dissolve,” explained Josep Lluis Bisbal, head of speciality chemicals at Kemira’s Iberican unit. “But paper can be recycled six or seven times and the problem of binding the pulp gets more and more challenging.”

Kemira worked with Portuguese chemical producer Quimitecnica as part of EUREKA project Optimis to produce agents that could improve the process of recycling paper and cardboard. Made from mineral oils and fatty alcohols, its “de-inking” agents clean recycled fibres better than others on the market and its “dry resistance agents” make the paper more durable and water resistant. The partners also improved processes for recycling paper to use less water.


Kemira focused on developing the most successful chemical composition for the agents and Quimitecnica manufactured them at a pilot plant to ensure they met industrial requirements. “Quimitecnica provided us with a different vision on the products,” said Lluis Bisbal. “There’s a lot of work required in this type of research and the result was very uncertain. EUREKA helped us take that important first step.”

Quimitecnica managed to grow its position in the Portuguese market, thanks to the knowhow developed during Optimis. Kemira has continued refining and commercialising the agents since concluding the project. It is currently working on cutting the costs of producing the agents. “Optimis opened a lot of doors to us. These techniques to improve the quality of paper attract enormous interest. Since starting the project in 2009, we’ve doubled our sales,” said Lluis Bisbal.

The two companies feel optimistic they can continue to grow sales over the coming years. By 2020, China alone will need to import 40 million to 50 million tonnes annually, estimates McKinsey. Kemira and Quimitecnica feel well-placed to tap some of that demand.


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