In environmental terms, the paper manufacturing industry has traditionally been seen as a hard-to-abate sector. But over the past couple of decades, it has been trying to shed its polluter image. Several initiatives have been taken to make manufacturing plants energy efficient by adopting green technologies. Simultaneously, raw materials are being procured from sustainable sources to bring down resource intensity.

As a result, the Indian paper sector has undergone changes. It has become wood positive — it plants more trees than it harvests. This has been possible due to its agro-forestry roots and backward linkages with the farming community.

Notes Pawan Agarwal, President, Indian Paper Manufacturers Association (IPMA): “India’s paper industry has taken significant leaps in the last few years in technological upgradation, adoption of clean and green technologies and introduction of best practices. The organised players have been working on reducing the environmental footprint and the resource intensity.”

In fact, India’s paper sector has invested over ₹25,000 crore in sustainable production processes in the last few years. Technological advancements include introducing efficient use of water and energy. Consequently, water consumption has come down significantly over the years from 200 cubic metres of water per tonne of paper to around 40 cubic metres. There is an effort to bring it down further.

Process tech

Paper mills have also undertaken significant upgradation of process technology to comply with stringent environmental norms to reduce freshwater consumption, effluents and emission generation.

Under the PAT (Perform Achieve Trade) scheme of the government, under the National Mission for Enhanced Energy Efficiency (NMEEE), the paper industry has been one of the top performing sectors and has overachieved the mandated stiff targets for reduction in specific energy consumption. More than 100 more paper mills are expected to come under the ambit of the PAT scheme in the next one year.

The industry has managed to bring down its energy consumption by about 20 per cent in the last five years. Integrated paper mills in India generate over 40 per cent of the power they use by utilising the biomass from the pulping process. Recently, the government announced the Carbon Credit Trading Scheme 2023, under which an Indian Carbon Market would be constituted. The existing PAT Scheme will be subsumed under the Carbon Credit Trading Scheme, with both widening and deepening of sectors covered, in the next 2-3 years. This will bring many more small and medium sized paper mills under the ambit of the scheme.

Raw material, afforestation, recycling

Domestic availability of raw material is the biggest challenge faced by India’s paper industry. Substantial amounts have been invested by the industry on plantation R&D, production of quality clonal saplings with lesser rotation period, technical extension services to improve agro/farm forestry services and handholding of marginal farmers over a gestation period of 4-5 years. This has generated employment opportunities for the local community in rural areas while bringing 12 lakh hectares of marginal land under green cover.

The use of recovered fibre/wastepaper for producing paper has also grown. “We need to bring larger amount of paper back into the system post-consumer use. This calls for involvement of all stakeholders so that the recovery rate goes up through source segregation, effective utilisation of wastepaper,” explains Agarwal.

According to IPMA estimates, consumption of paper in India is rising by about 6-7 per cent per annum. But the per capita consumption in India is only 15-16 kg as compared to global average of 57 kg. Currently, it is estimated that India has 25 million tonnes of operational capacity with annual production of about 22 million tonnes. It is estimated that the country requires about one million tonnes of new pulp and paper capacity to be created in India on an annual basis over current capacity to meet the demand.

Official data reveal that India imported 2.1 million tonnes of paper in 2022-23. Imports have been steadily increasing over the years despite adequate domestic capacity because of previously inked free trade agreements. This is adversely impacting the domestic industry.

This is unfortunate because paper is environment-friendly, biodegradable, recyclable and is produced from sustainable sources. It can also be recycled up to 6-7 times. Given that, the paper industry deserves all the encouragement it can get.