Arno van de Ven, Stora Enso Biomaterials: Growth in the bioeconomy needs to be sustainable

Arno van de Ven
Arno van de Ven

“Creating a common framework and standardised system to evaluate the bio-based products, along with mandatory targets for biosourced products in public procurement, would certainly provide a boost the European bioeconomy. Improving access to finance for research and innovation would also foster growth.” Arno van den Ven, Senior Vice President, Innovation in Stora Enso’s Biomaterials division, talks to Il Bioeconomista. In this long exclusive interview he talks about Stora Enso Biomaterials, the wood-based economy and how to foster growth in the European bioeconomy.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

Stora Enso is one of the most important world players in the pulp and paper industry. What prompted you to invest in the business of biomaterials?

Global challenges like resource scarcity, climate change and overpopulation mean that businesses need to develop more sustainable business models. The shift to digital also means declining demand for paper. Stora Enso is tackling these issues head on by transforming into a renewable materials company. We are pioneering the development of bio-based products and diversifying our product portfolio while doing more with the same amount of raw materials.   Helping drive this change is the Stora Enso Biomaterials division. Created in 2012, the division focuses on technology development and the commercialisation of lignin and other bio-based chemicals.  We have four innovation clusters which are transforming non-food-competing, non-GMO, second-generation biomass into sustainable solutions for customers. The target markets for these solutions include pulp applications in paper, board, tissue, hygiene and textiles, cellulosic applications and chemical intermediates. Our aim is to become a leading bio-based chemicals and materials company. To achieve this goal, we have acquired innovative extraction and separation technologies to convert wood and other biomass into cellulose fibres, C5 and C6 sugars and lignin. Stora Enso is going beyond pulp and paper and helping build a bio-based, more sustainable future.

In Stockholm, you created the state-of-the-art Innovation Centre for biomaterials. What plans do you have for this Centre?

Inaugurated in 2015, the Stora Enso Innovation Centre for biomaterials will facilitate knowledge-sharing and enable Stora Enso to identify new business opportunities in the renewable materials market. The Innovation Centre houses research, application, business development and strategic marketing under one roof. Strategically located close to leading research centres, the Innovation Centre connects Stora Enso employees with the latest thinking on biomaterials and biochemicals. This will help speed up the delivery of commercial bio-based solutions.

What, in detail, is the agreement that you have signed with Rennovia?

Stora Enso and speciality chemicals company Rennovia signed an agreement to cooperate on the laboratory scale development of bio-based chemicals. Under the Joint Development Agreement, employees from both companies will work together to create novel processes for bio-based chemical production from renewable feedstocks. Rennovia has expertise in the development of catalysts and catalytic processes. By harnessing Rennovia’s know-how to develop chemicals of interest to Stora Enso, the agreement will enable Stora Enso to build a portfolio of bio-based solutions for its customers.

The Finnish forest industry is investing heavily in new projects related to the bioeconomy. What is the bioeconomy from your point of view? How is it linked to the new circular economy paradigm?

The bioeconomy sources renewable materials and uses them to manufacture bio-based replacements for fossil-based products. It is powered by innovative and efficient technologies which convert natural biological materials into bio-based products and bioenergy. Plant-based matter is also the material of choice for the circular economy. Rather than continuing with the ‘take-make-dispose’ model, the circular economy recognises that many resources are finite and need to be used in a smarter, more sustainable way. The aim is to maintain the value of products and materials for as long as possible to keep resources within the economy. For this, renewable feedstocks are preferable to oil. Policies which support both the bioeconomy and circular economy, have been adopted by the European Commission. The Circular Economy Package establishes a concrete plan of action to close the loop of product lifecycles through greater recycling and re-use. The Bioeconomy Strategy aims to focus Europe’s efforts towards the replacement of fossil fuels with sustainable, natural alternatives. There is a natural synergy between the circular economy and bioeconomy, with both aiming to preserve and enhance natural capital. Together, they represent an opportunity to reinvent our economy and benefit the environment and the economy. It is also important to design bio-based products so they can also be reused and/or recycled.

It is said that the cascading use of biomass, prioritising material use before energy use is preferable as a climate change mitigation measure as the carbon stays stored in the material for longer and it substitutes non-renewable materials and fossil energy twice. In principle, cascading use is also more resource efficient and economically beneficial. From your point of view, is cascading use of biomass a superior concept in the context of a sustainable bioeconomy?

The cascading use principle is rooted in the efficient use of scarce resources, prioritising the material use of biomass before energy. As a renewable materials company focused on developing and commercialising bio-based chemicals, we are also focused on the material use of biomass. For Stora Enso, where it makes economic sense, cascading use is the smart way to use renewable raw materials. Stora Enso is an expert in harvesting, collecting and converting biomass. Over the years, our processes have been optimised to use biomass more efficiently and reduce environmental impacts. The company’s investments in new extraction technologies represent another step in this journey. Stora Enso uses wood efficiently, only burns biomass for energy which has no other value.

What are the drivers or barriers to cascade use?

Cascade use requires policy measures such as waste collection, resource efficiency and energy to be harmonised. Although some policy measures promoting the use of biomass to meet renewable energy targets are seen as a potential barrier to cascading use, local energy production from biomass makes economic sense when there is no demand for certain biomass byproducts from another industry. Different kinds of biomass are suitable for different applications and availability varies between countries. This makes finding the most effective outcome for the entire resource system a complex challenge. It is also important to look at all streams and find the most efficient end uses for each one. In Raceland, Louisiana, Stora Enso is building a demonstration plant close to sugarcane plantations and the plant will use sugarcane bagasse (waste) as feedstock.   Set to come online later this year, the plant is an example of the cascade use principle at work.

What measure do you believe is still necessary in Europe to foster growth in the bioeconomy?

Creating a common framework and standardised system to evaluate the bio-based products, along with mandatory targets for biosourced products in public procurement, would certainly provide a boost the European bioeconomy. Improving access to finance for research and innovation would also foster growth. Alongside these measures, policies which support the development of interconnected value chains are needed. Stora Enso’s collaboration with Rennovia is a prime example of the type of partnership that will accelerate the development of bio-based materials. We must not forget that growth in the bioeconomy needs to be sustainable. It must protect biodiversity, enhance food security and local livelihoods, as well as use best practice in land and water management. Stora Enso plays its part by using sustainable forest management practices. The company uses credible certifications run by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). We are embedding sustainability at the heart of our renewable materials transformation.

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