"Continuous improvement is very deep in our culture," says Ismo Nousiainen, Metsä Fibre's SVP, production. For anyone who has seen this commitment to improvement reverberating throughout the organization, his statement would be hard to dispute. But how did such a culture develop in the first place?
According to Nousiainen, it is the result of long-term thinking. "We know that in all areas, if we don't improve our results continuously, we won't succeed in the future. And we also know that for all the ambitions we have, the time frame is very long: you have to work for years at a stretch to get these results."
If we don't improve our results continuously, we won't succeed in the future
The company's results, in terms of environmental performance, cost effectiveness, and success in their markets worldwide, are strong evidence supporting Nousiainen's position. He ascribes them to the early emphasis on innovation. "Continuous improvement is all about success in the future. This applies to the environmental side, the production side, cost efficiency, energy efficiency, and virtually every other area."
Ismo Nousiainen, SVP, Production
The birth of today's approach
In the past decade, the issues, challenges and questions which fall under the umbrella term 'sustainability' have come to dominate the world's consciousness, and the term has found voice at every level, from governments, to the media, to the general public.
With Metsä Fibre now benefitting from environmental performance aims set a number of years ago - long before the eruption of concern over this topic - it is tempting to ask how they were able to anticipate this. How did the importance of improving environmental performance first manifest itself?
Nousiainen casts his mind back to the company's reflections on sustainability metrics at the turn of the millennium. "We began to notice that our performance in terms of waste water, carbon emissions and energy efficiency was in good shape compared to the competition. With some commitment and a concentrated effort, this began to look like an area in which we could establish a competitive edge."
In the beginning of the 2000s, a strategic decision was made: Metsä Fibre established an environmental policy, stating the company's aim to be the forest industries' forerunner in terms of environmental performance.
FROM strength to strength
If we turn the clock forward once again to the present day, we see, of course a near-universal understanding of the importance of sustainable processes and business models that take dwindling natural resources into account. When asked to point to Metsä Fibre's greatest achievements in respect of environmental performance, Nousiainen is quick to answer; it is easy to imagine that such memorable achievements are never too far from the top of his mind.
"In terms of waste-water effluents, in 2007 we generated 40 cubic metres per tonne of pulp produced. Today in 2015, it is under 25. We show very strong improvement there. Then when you consider COD (chemical oxygen demand) effluent, in the beginning of 2000 that was 19 kg per tonne of pulp. Nowadays it is 11. Once again, an achievement to be proud of."
But Nousiainen also emphasizes that environmental performance is not improved as an isolated metric. There is, in fact, a strong relationship between environmental performance and production efficiency. In practice, the pulp mill with the lowest emissions figures, for example, will always be the one with the most stable production.
"As we increase production efficiency, we are increasing availability," he explains. "By reducing equipment failures and process disturbances, we keep availability high, but also reduce our emissions."
But this is easier said than done. Maximizing production efficiency and environmental performance in this manner, Nousiainen tells me, requires active process development and constant attention.
"We have developed our preventive maintenance, and we have developed the view our operators have over the process. If they see an action that could boost availability, they can record this on our system. Likewise, if they notice something that could present a threat to availability, we can make the necessary corrections before suffering a drop."
These efforts and annual investments targeted upon reducing threats to Metsä Fibre's high availability levels have certainly borne fruit. In the past three years alone, the already-impressive figure of 95 per cent availability has increased to over 97 per cent.
38.3% DECREASE IN
WASTE-WATER EFFLUENTS 2007-2015
42.1% DECREASE IN
COD EFFLUENTS 2000-2015
20.8% DECREASE IN
FOSSIL CO2 EMISSIONS 2010-2014
Minimising all the way to zero
Another area in which Metsä Fibre has excelled is in the reduction of CO2 emissions. At the company's Joutseno mill, Nousiainen explains, the recent introduction of a gasification plant provides gas for the facility's limekiln, replacing natural gas as an energy source with biogas.
"We can now use our own bark as a fuel source after debarking our wood, replacing the fuel we had to buy in from outside the mill. As well as being more efficient, working this way means that we have no CO2 emissions in the normal operations of the plant."
We can now use our own bark as a fuel source
At the time of the gasification plant's addition to Joutseno in 2012, the facility became the first CO2 neutral plant in Finland. With the technology now proven, lessons learned at Joutseno will, of course, be implemented in the company's new mill at Äänekoski. Carbon-neutrality has become a strategic cornerstone, but as we shall see, the journey isn't over yet.
THE CUSTOMERS' NEEDS COME FIRST
Metsä Fibre's continuous improvement to environmental performance is certainly impressive in and of itself, but Nousiainen is keen to point out that the customer is the ultimate object of all this effort.
In the future, he tells me, environmental regulations and requirements for Metsä Fibre's customers' products will become tougher and tougher. "We all know about the need to limit CO2 emissions in the value chain, but we can also expect to see the authorities imposing strict limits on water consumption."
Fortunately, the future-oriented approach espoused by the company right in the beginning continues to this day. "When we work to improve our environmental performance, we are essentially making it possible for our customers to meet their regulatory requirements in the future. By taking our pulp into use, they will be in a position to succeed in the future without dramatic investments or process changes. We are way ahead of the requirements, in that sense."
It never ends
Metsä Having discussed past decisions and on-going policies and their effect on the present situation, the question of the future remains. Nousiainen again points to the need to be ahead of the game. "Regulations impose certain permission limits, relating to effluents, for example, but these are not our targets. We establish our own limitation targets, which are much lower than those the authorities apply. This is really the motivation behind continuous improvement. By continuously improving our performance, we can be a confident supplier to our customers for many years to come."
At the moment, improvement efforts are being applied to yet another area: odorous gases. At Metsä Fibre's Rauma mill, a new odorous gas boiler is now being taken into use, ensuring that these gases can be treated in all circumstances, preventing unpleasant odorous disturbances in the vicinity of the mill entirely. Joutseno has already seen the introduction of a new system for odorous gas treatment, and the results have been very encouraging.
The topic of sustainability has certainly reached a mature point, though, and Nousiainen sees CO2 emissions as continuing to dominate the agenda for many years to come. Waste water, emissions to air, energy efficiency: these are the watchwords of environmental performance, and are unlikely to change before long. One thing is clear, though. At Metsä Fibre, continuous improvement in every area will continue to be the aim. It simply never ends.