Kotkamills – Changing the Game to Advance Circularity

Using its expertise in wood processing, Finnish Kotkamills offers companies sustainable, plastic-free packaging alternatives, significantly reducing environmental impact.

Located in southern Finland, Kotkamills represents a synergy of three business lines which together make a forerunner of the circular economy: the sawmill, one of the oldest in Finland with origins going back to 1872; production of a saturating base kraft paper range; and production of consumer boards.

The three business lines operate as an integrated operation, each with its own special way to use the renewable resource, making sure no part of the wood goes to waste, and re-using the fibres from recycled board materials.

“At Kotkamills, we efficiently use raw wood material in the various stages of the production chain. Paper and board production utilises the sawdust and woodchips created when sawing spruce timber into planks, refining sawmill by-products into raw materials that are suitable for our other production processes,” says CEO Markku Hämäläinen.

Kotkamills with its 520 employees achieves a turnover each year of slightly under € 400 million. The figure is expected to increase, says Mr Hämäläinen, as a result of a recent investment in a new, high-capacity consumer board machine – the first machine in the world to have the capability to apply dispersion barrier coatings directly on the machine, producing barrier boards that can be recycled with normal paper waste due to having zero plastic content.

Eco-friendliness at its best

All of the company’s key business lines have a strong sustainability profile, aimed at advancing positive environmental changes with the power from wood. The sawmill provides the high-quality raw material required for both the boards and kraft paper.

The Absorbex® saturating base kraft paper is made of unbleached sawdust pulp and can be used for the production of high-pressure laminates with an average life of dozens of years, making a very effective carbon sink. Absorbex® is the leading global laminating paper brand manufactured in Europe, used in prime-quality design products as well as in everyday applications that require high durability.Kotkamills

The consumer boards are marketed as ISLA®, a high-quality food service board range applied for single-use cups and plates, and AEGLE®, a folding boxboard range, including water-based dispersion barrier grades, used for food packaging, frozen and chilled food, confectionery, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. The products are based on Nordic fresh forest fibres and come with the unique possibility of the addition of on-machine dispersion coated barriers to replace the non-renewable plastics traditionally used.

Kotkamills’ water-based dispersion coated barrier boards are fully recyclable and repulpable, and as such, they have already captured the interest of many brands.

Mr Hämäläinen points out that the company is particularly proud of the ISLA® boards that can change the game in the single-use cup market. “The vast majority of cups currently in use contain polyethylene plastic making recycling difficult and composting virtually impossible. With our ISLA® Duo barrier board we are offering an alternative to manufacturers to reach their sustainability targets, but, primarily to contribute to a reduced amount of plastic in the environment.”

The biodegradable ISLA® Duo barrier board has just recently received the Seedling and DIN-Geprüft certifications for industrial compostability, and the company is now working on making the product domestically compostable as well.

These milestones have not been achieved in isolation. The company’s business partners are an integral part of the journey towards a plastic-free future and many are involved in the process right from the start, i.e. product development. One such company is Imerys who, being platinum Ecovadis-rated and committed to CSR principles, has proven to be an excellent partner for such an environmentally based development. Imerys supplies the plastic-free barrier coating material and their technical input has been critical for the success of the patented products and formulation approach that create competitive differentiation.

Promising potential

At the moment, Kotkamills is the only industrial producer of plastic-free coated packaging boards for the food industry and the potential is huge. The company was close to reaching agreements with prime manufacturers earlier this year – and then Covid-19 came, putting industries at a standstill.

“The rise of the global pandemic is unfortunate in every respect but we remain optimistic for the future. The discussion about reducing plastics has been going on for some time, with Europe being at the forefront of this phenomenon, closely followed by North America, where we are currently exploring the possibility of establishing our own sales office. Overall, the North American food packaging market is huge: the board cup market alone is more than 1,000,000 tonnes a year, i.e. quadruple the size of Europe’s. Even a few per cent share of the North American market would be a good start for us,” reflects Mr Hämäläinen.

In supporting its business growth, Kotkamills can count on the dedication and commitment of its people. The company has an excellent relationship with its staff based on open discussions, daily meetings and in-place support programmes. This personnel-focused policy has been duly rewarded. Earlier this year, when paper mill workers were on strike in Finland, Kotkamills was the only company in the country whose employees refused to participate. “This made us very proud, suggesting that we are doing things right,” says Mr Hämäläinen.

Speaking about plans for the future, he affirms that more investment is planned in new equipment to increase capacity to accommodate the growing demand for sustainable products.

“It is important to increase awareness of a new alternative to plastics, and we have to rethink the role of packaging in our society. The new compostable fibre-based cups are an excellent example. Replacing the huge number of plastic cups that are made every day around the world would be a highly efficient way to reduce the amount of plastics on a global scale.”

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