Toilet paper, we have been in the most futuristic factory that produces it

Toilet paper, we have been in the most futuristic factory that produces it

Toilet paper

Circleville, Ohio - In 2019, Natural Resources Defense Council (Nrdc), a New York-based non-governmental organization, publishes a report that covers a rather private moment in our daily habits: paper consumption for personal hygiene, come on handkerchiefs to kitchen rolls to toilet paper ones. The report is entitled The issue with tissue (tissue is the English name of the product sector). Basically, this is the thesis, the production of personal hygiene paper destined for the US market would cause the felling of large portions of boreal forest in Canada: because the process is based, after all, always on trees.

If the environmental costs of automotive and oil & gas are known and studied, little is known about many other sectors. The Nrdc report has the merit of opening a glimpse into an area rarely considered, but with a significant impact. From the consequences of cutting forests to emissions for the transport of timber, from the huge amount of water required for processing to the consumption of gas for drying, up to the impact of the millions of kilometers traveled for distribution.

Not surprising, come to think of it. Modernity, well-being, have always had environmental repercussions. It is said that in the Soviet Union the circulation of Pravda was very high, despite the fact that it was a notoriously deployed sheet, because the newspaper cost less than toilet paper. Even in Italy, the elderly say, until the beginning of the seventies, newspapers were used for personal needs. Then came the first rolls, with a rough grain and dark color: within a few years, the public became more demanding and got used to white, which means additives, i.e. pollution. Quality and softness come at a cost, but few would give it up.

Despite this, the new inspiration for sustainability and reports such as Nrdc's have led a part of the industry to run for cover, trying to reduce the environmental impact and pushing producers to find alternatives. The NGO admits it: something is moving. Not for everyone, of course. But more and more companies have embarked on the path of greater environmental awareness.

Among these Sofidel, an Italian multinational based in Lucca and present in thirteen countries, including the United States, and which has set up one of the most modern factories in the world in the sector in America. An attempt to be at the forefront of technology and reduction of environmental impact, the result of an investment of four hundred million euros.

The exterior of the Sofidel factory in Circleville, Ohio (photo: Antonio Piemontese)

The European “tissue valley”

Known to the Italian public for the Regina brand, Sofidel is a giant with 2.1 billion euros in turnover, 6,650 employees and a profit of around sixty million. Numbers that make it the second European group in the sector, and the seventh in the world. The giant has always focused exclusively on the production of paper for hygienic uses and maintains its headquarters in Porcari (in the province of Lucca), where it started the business fifty-five years ago. The founders, Emi Stefani and Giuseppe Lazzareschi, started the engines in 1966 in an area extremely rich in water, essential for the production process. There the European tissue valley would be born, where, alongside the paper producers, many machinery factories have also been concentrated over time.

Technological innovation and a series of acquisitions lead to a rapid increase in production capacity, which in turn must find an outlet in new markets. Thus it began twenty-five years ago with France, and then expanded to, among others, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom. The horizons widen also thanks to the encounter with an increasingly international large distribution: groups such as Carrefour and Auchan now operate in various countries. Not only. The product, by its nature, is light and with low added value; transport costs, therefore, have a significant impact, also because trucks take on large quantities of air. Hence the need to place factories close to the places of consumption: 300-400 kilometers maximum in Europe, 700-800 kilometers in the United States.

In 2012 Sofidel lands in America thanks to the Select call: the Obama administration is looking for companies interested in investing in the country, offering a series of incentives. Today there are six factories in the United States (Wisconsin, Ocklahoma, Florida, Nevada, Mississipi, Ohio, in addition to the administrative headquarters in Philadelphia), capable of serving a large part of the territory. visited the most modern, the one in Circleville, Ohio. Opened in 2018, it is located - as expected - in an area rich in water, electricity and natural gas, close to the large urban and logistics centers that will be the production terminal. We were able to visit it, invited by the company.

The digital control room (photo: Antonio Piemontese)

The Circleville plant

Two hours flight from New York , but the distance, in terms of rhythms and landscapes, is much greater. In Ohio begins the Midwest, the large factories at the base of the American consumer economy. The visitor disembarked in Columbus, the capital, first of all notices the enormous spaces: endless expanses of nothing, interspersed with villages of a few thousand inhabitants. Here Intel will open two factories, a total of twenty billion dollars of investment, for the production of chips; here, where natural resources are abundant, we have long let ourselves be carried away.

At the beginning of the seventies, according to the chronicles, the Cuyahoga river (in the north of the state) literally caught fire. To ignite, the layer of oil that covered it. "The water was practically always covered with an oily veil and bubbled like a deadly stew - writes the Smithsonian Magazine -. Sometimes rats floated, their bodies so swollen they were practically the size of a dog. A disturbing spectacle, but also one of the realities of the city at that time ”.

"For more than a century, Cuyahoga was the preferred location for various manufacturing industries - notes the newspaper - Everyone knew it was polluted, but pollution meant that the industry thrived, the economy did sparks, and everyone had a job ”. "The river was scary," confirms Tim Donovan, a student at the time, to the newspaper. "The general rule was that if you fell into it, God free, it was better to run to the hospital."

Things have changed a lot since then. The environmental movements have won many battles and obtained stricter regulations on water spills, environmental emissions, chimney fumes. But the United States is also the country where the denier Donald Trump sat in the White House until 2020, leader of a global current with little interest in environmental issues. Calibrating an economy accustomed to moving without too many constraints on the basis of new and increasingly stringent parameters is not easy. The ecological transition, in order not to become unpopular with the voters, must be systematised with the needs of employment, the recovery of investments, and consolidated lifestyles. Who arrives last, in this case, enjoys a colossal advantage. And Sofidel slipped through the opening.

The Tuscan multinational has built a plant in Circleville based on the most recent environmental criteria. A huge warehouse, one million square meters and one kilometer long side, from which to try to bring the sector into the twenty-first century.

The impression, at first sight, is to be in a very different reality than to the collective imagination of the factory. Laser-guided forklifts as large as vans whiz through the corridors, independently loading the huge bales necessary for processing. Self-propelled pachyderms that run and turn as directed by a vigilant imaginary equipped with a shovel and whistle: but the beasts are able to stop in a few centimeters if they detect an obstacle. Of course, we have experienced this.

Warehouse technologies are borrowed from the food & beverage sector, similar to those of the Tannico automatic warehouse already visited by Fully digital management saves up to 40% of space and minimizes labor.

One of the gigantic laser-guided forklifts (photo: Antonio Piemontese)

The two colossal paper mill machines are supplied by Valmet, a world leader in Finland. As regards, instead, the second phase of production, converting, ten lines are installed in Circleville for the realization of the finished product: three are produced by Fabio Perini, another Italian multinational based in the Tuscan tissue valley and capable of exporting all over the world.

Cellulose comes from certified forests, explains the company, with the guarantee that the cut trees will be replanted. The huge amount of energy needed for processing comes from renewable sources, through long-term agreements with suppliers.

Finally, alongside the use of cogeneration plants - i.e. intended for the joint production of energy and heat - Sofidel has implemented a system for recovering the heat generated by the turbines, which can be conveyed through specific extraction hoods and first used for drying paper reels, and later recovered for the production of steam. This system is able to provide almost all the energy necessary for drying the paper, and can power - under certain conditions - the entire machine.

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