Changing an Industry

Canfor Pulp's sustainable stewardship helps shift the perception that its industry is typically bad for the environment

An aerial shot of Canfor’s three pulp mills (clockwise from far top): the Northwood, Prince George, and Intercontinental mills.

The evolution of the Canadian forestry industry in the past five years has been important.  The business of pulp-, paper-, and wood-product production has gone from being an environmental detriment to a prominent source for the emerging bioeconomical revolution. Joe Nemeth and his company, Canfor Pulp Products Inc., have been at the centre of that change.

“There has been an incredible resurgence in the interest and perception of opportunity in the forestry industry, and it all centres around bioeconomy,” says Nemeth, CEO for Canfor Pulp. Nemeth has spent his entire professional career in the industry, and his work has far-reaching and exciting implications that include the development of green energy, biofuels, and biochemicals.

“There has been an incredible resurgence in the interest and perception of opportunity in the forestry industry, and it all centres around bioeconomy.” —Joe Nemeth, CEO

Nemeth was exposed to the forestry business at a young age, with his father being a forester himself. Nemeth’s first 18 summers were spent following his father with a compass, helping survey the trees and the lands where his father worked. This led to an education in forestry at the University of British Columbia and the beginning of his professional career at BC Forest Products. It was his interest in sustainable power and its implications within the industry that led him to Canfor Pulp. Working on a joint venture to build the first stand-alone green-energy power plant with TransAlta Power, Canfor Pulp asked him to come aboard, and he has been a champion for the progression of sustainable energy ever since.

Nemeth—and leaders like him across the forestry sector—has helped lead the transition toward better recognition of the green potential of wood waste. “The logs were being turned into lumber, but what was left—the sawdust, bark—was just being burned off, and I thought to myself, ‘What a waste,’” Nemeth says. These fibres have a lot of potential for use, and the realization of their potential has changed everything for the industry. “Over the past 25 years, forestry has been increasingly viewed as a sunset industry, one whose role as a large global player had been diminished,” Nemeth says. “Now, Canada is seen to be sitting on one of the largest untapped resources, with a lot of experience and infrastructure to once again be a global leader in this whole new area of bioeconomy.”

The way the fibres can be utilized is threefold: The renewable wood waste can be turned into green energy in energy plants that use the waste to heat and electricity. The wood fibres can also be used to produce biofuels (such as cellulosic ethanol), which are as effective as fossil fuels and reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions up to 85 percent over gasoline. The excess wood-waste fibres can also be broken down into their chemical elements, including cellulose nanocrystals. These needle-shaped fibres comprise 20 percent of a tree’s mass and can be used to produce biochemicals and a substance called nanocrystalline cellulose. The substance is stronger than steel and lighter than paper, and its commercial implications include aerospace technology and bulletproof vests.

In addition, Nemeth is also part of the larger regional dialogue. As cochair of the British Columbia Pulp and Paper Task Force, Nemeth is involved with a collaborative effort involving the government, the industry, education, and employees. “We’re working with the provincial government to develop a long-term vision to change policy and implement processes that will put us in a position to become a global leader in this emerging bioeconomy,” Nemeth says.

Canfor is doing its part internally as well. “Any big business has a social license,” Nemeth says. “If you behave responsibly, you will be supported by government policy and the community. If you don’t—if you abuse that privilege—you can lose the social license to operate.”

To that end, Canfor has created a senior position dedicated to environmental responsibility. This director of sustainability reports to Nemeth with a report card. The company has invested $200 million since 2010—most of that going towards improving its environmental performance. A few of the recent highlights include the reduction of air emissions from its precipitators by 90 percent and also removing much of the sulfur smell that paper plants are known for, by collecting the odour-producing gas and burning it off. “We have 1,200 employees, and many of them live in the local community,” Nemeth says. “It’s important to keep them and the entire community happy and healthy.”