Paper plant leads the way in war on plastic

It seems that the rest of us are only just starting to catch up with Ahlstrom-Munksjö's Chirnside-based plant when it comes to looking after the planet.

Monday, 18th June 2018, 09:00 am
Stuart Nixon, Hans Sholstrom and Steven Monks at Ahlstrom-Munksjo's Chirnside plant.

Ten years ago staff successfully came up with a solution to replace plastic-based tea bags and coffee pods used in coffee machines with their BioWeb product, a biodegradeable material which is compostable in industrial composting faciltiies and can be thrown out with food waste.

But they had to wait several years before coffee machine manufacturers and the general public were also ready to embrace such a sustainable approach to a cup of coffee.

“We built the line 10 years ago but the market wasn’t ready then,” said former plant manager Stuart Nixon, now the company’s vice president in its beverage and casing division.

It is that level of technological capability and approach to sustainability that has seen the plant become one of Ahlstrom-Munksjö’s most important sites in its network of 40 plants worldwide.

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It is number two in the world for tea and coffee materials but number one when it comes to the use of sustainable materials.

The Co-op sells 367 million teabags a year and has been working with Typhoo and Ahlstrom-Munksjö to develop a method of heat-sealing bags as an alternative to the widely used plastic seal.

The biodegradable bags could be on shelves later this year across the Co-op’s entire own-label standard tea range and will be fully compostable in food waste collections. Many other brands such as Cliper and Twinings look like following suit.

“Many of us don’t know that plastic is widely used in tea bags,” said an Ahlstrom-Munksjö spokesman.

“In traditional tea bags plastic is used to allow the sealing. In some cases, even the entire tea bag could be made of plastic. To reduce the use of plastic, we have developed a plastic-free tea bag.

“We developed a technology called The Fiber+ which replaces the plastic with polylactic acid (PLA), a biopolymer usually made of corn starch. Fiber+ will be made in Chirnside.

“Ahlstrom-Munksjö continuously develops new solutions to replace plastic with the fibre-based solution. We have only seen the beginning of what fibre-based materials and solutions can be used for.”

Last week, the company’s newly-appointed chief executive officer, Hans Sohlstrom, paid a visit to Chirnside and left very impressed.

“It is a centre of excellence of skills in single service coffee pods, tea bags and casings for sausages,” he said.

“One in 10 teabags in the world is produced out of material manufactured at Chirnside, and one in every five tea bags is produced by Ahlstrom-Munksjö.

“There is a lot of knowledge and best practice and skills here in Chirnside which I wanted to experience first hand. I have been really impressed by what I’ve seen. This is a site with a lot of innovation, foresight and sustainability. You can feel the quality of mindfulness, the strong quality of health and safety and it is a well structured, managed and led plant.”

“This is a state-of-the-art operation.”

Ahlstrom-Munksjö was created in 2017 when the Finnish company Ahlstrom merged with Sweden based Munksjö to create a global leader in sustainable and innovative fibre-based solutions.

The company’s mission is to work towards “sustainable and innovative fibre-based solutions” in the food and beverage, automotive, furniture, non-food consumer goods, construction, health care and life science, general industry and energy markets.

Mr Sohlstrom was shown around the multi-million site by Stuart Nixon and recently appointed UK plant manager Steven Monks.

He also met the 139 employees at Chirnside, where not only the products but the whole environment is about sustainability.

“We try and walk the talk when it comes to waste,” explained Mr Nixon.

“This plant has sent zero waste to landfill since 2013.”

Ahlstrom took over the Chirnside factory from the US-based Dexter Corporation in 2000 and nine years later installed a £23 million production line to produce the world’s first completely biodegradable tea bags.

The paper mill on the River Whiteadder was first built between 1771 and 1797, then in 1842 was reconstructed by David Cousin for the Young Trotter Company.

It grew in size twice more in the 19th century to meet the need for fine paper produced from rags.

It produced high quality paper for Dickinsons in the 1930s and the railway line ran into the factory delivering esparto grass and china clay.

In the mid 20th century, the American company Dexter Nonwovens moved onto the site making paper used in teabags, coffee filters, meat casings and cigarette filters.

In 1994 The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh opened the new $15 million Hydraspun M plant at the Chirnside site.

In 2000 the Ahlstrom Paper Group of Finland bought the site and in 2006 invested £19 million at Chirnside.

In 2009 Ahlstrom installed a new £23 million production line, the first in the world to produce fully biodegradeable tea bags.

Scottish Enterprise supported the development to the tune of £1 million.

Michael Gass, regional director with Scottish Enterprise, said at the time: “Ahlstrom is a key company in the Scottish Borders and south of Scotland economy.

“This investment will secure the future of everyone employed on the site and bring new jobs too.”

In April 2017 Ahlstrom merged with Swedish company Munksjö and the Chirnside plant remains a key player in the company’s future plans to become the world’s number one producer of beverage and casing materials.The local plant has a highly skilled workforce.

Steven Monks added: “The skill set we require is specific.

“We offer an alternative career path – an apprenticeship as a first phase with a commitment to help people through university if that works out.”