Innovation and Sustainability: Lessons from the Paper Industry at PaperCon 2010


The international conference on the paper industry, PaperCon 2010, was held April 2-5 in Atlanta, Georgia, where nearly 1300 attendees gathered to learn the latest developments in areas such as papermaking, coating, and broader issues such as innovation, leadership, and sustainability. The “broader issues” are handled in the 1/3 of the program managed by PIMA, the Paper Industry Management Association, and I had the privilege of being the PIMA Programming Chair for 2010, working with a terrific team of people to bring in a series of great speakers. shows details of the PIMA track.

I was especially interested in our Carbon Management track, where we had a lineup of experts giving us insights into trends and challenges the industry will face. These speakers included Marilyn Brown, the Nobel laureate from Georgia Tech; Don Carli of The Institute for Sustainable Communication; Don Brown of Agenda 2020, Ben Thorp, a former industry executive widely recognized for his expertise in biofuels and energy issues; George Weyerhaeuser Jr., former Weyerhaeuser executive and Senior Fellow, World Business Council for Sustainable Development; and Tom Rosser, Director General of the Policy, Economics and Industry Branch of the Canadian Forest Service at Natural Resources Canada.

From these speakers, I learned that issues of climate change and environmental responsibility are far more complex than one would ever imagine from listening to popular pundits in the media. Don Carli, who recently made quite a splash in the media with his essay, “Is Digital Media Worse for the Environment Than Print?,” explained that many groups making environmental claims of “saving trees” by using digital technologies such as electronic bill pay, online content, or email versus paper have failed to provide any plausible basis for their claims. In fact, the use of digital media currently promote deforestation of old growth forests in the form of West Virginia mountain tops that are leveled during the mountaintop coal mining that provides much of the coal used in producing much of our electricity (for an intro to the horrors of mountaintop coal mining, see But Carli points our that there are huge opportunities for innovation in this area, with the potential to improve the electrical efficiency of digital media and data center by an order or magnitude or more. In my opinion, this must become a priority for innovation in sustainability, not shutting down sustainable, managed plantations of trees which are actively replanted and remove large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere without blowing the tops off mountains and dumping the remains into once-pristine streams.

I also learned that green innovations in energy can sometimes result in valuable energy sources being used poorly. Ben Thorp, for example, explained that a standalone turbine using biomass to produce electricity might have an overall energy efficiency of only 18-20%, but if that same turbine is integrated with, say, a papermill to allow waste heat to be more effectively used and to gain other benefits, the overall efficiency can reach 70%. A reasonable approach to sustainability must include using our energy resources efficiently. Simply assuming that biofuels or power from biomass is inherently desirable is unjustified if much of the potential is being wasted.

Meanwhile, some environmental activists are beginning to see the wisdom of wood as a sustainable, replenishable material that takes carbon out of the atmosphere (whether that’s truly desirable or not is still an issue of controversy). The “Je Touch du Bois” (“I touch wood” in French, literally, but this is also similar to English’s “knock on wood” saying expressing a wish for good luck) campaign in Canada led by a former Greenpeace activist is evidence of that. Watch for this perspective to grow.

As with innovation in general, it’s difficult to get the right answer even when one does their homework. Finding breakthroughs that solve real problems and become adopted in society for positive change requires iteration on several fronts: iteration in the technology, in the business model, and in the message and how it is shared. One rarely gets it right the first time, and the winners are those who have something left to keep moving forward as they change and respond to the brutal realities of the marketplace and of science, which is often tentative due to limited human understanding.

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