Today’s pulp and paper industry is transitioning to respond to global demands for more sustainable manufacturing and environmentally friendly products. Many of the prospective students visiting the University of Maine this summer as part of the Consider Engineering program said that they were interested in sustainability engineering. They need look no further than today’s paper industry to find exciting engineering challenges.

If you grew up in a town with a pulp mill, you may not have a great impression of the paper industry. You may have watched the mill close, and many people lose their jobs. Like many industries, the pulp and paper industry is experiencing a transition, but it did not die, it is transforming to as our world changes.

  • Did you know that the forest products industry is one of the top 10 manufacturing employers in 45 states?
  • Did you know that the forest products industry represents 4% of the U.S. manufacturing GDP?

Sustainability is in Our Genetic Makeup

Sustainability is in the heart of the pulp and paper industry, even more so than in past decades. When an industry is based on a natural resource like trees, sustainable thinking is hardwired into the manufacturing culture. Today’s pulp and paper industry is not what your grandparents experienced, and your parents could tell you that they have seen shifts in industry initiatives over their career. The industry is constantly working to make the best use of wood fiber, and reduce the water and energy used to make paper.

The American Forest and Paper Association advocates for a strong and sustainable U.S. paper and wood products industry. Their membership makes up about 85% of the pulp, paper and paper-based packaging and tissue products made in the U.S. AF&PA has published their 2030 Sustainability Goals, and I encourage you to read their 2020 Sustainability Report.

  • Did you know that 62.5% of AF&PA member’s energy demand is met through carbon-neutral biomass sources? What other industry can say that?

Mission Critical – Alternatives for Plastic

Did the giant garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean enrage you? The paper industry has been innovating for years trying to find replacements for plastic packaging. Now the need is much more critical and is being driven by consumer and global interest. Consumer product companies are looking for alternatives from the wood fiber industries.

While the U.S. has seen many closures of pulp and paper mills over the last decade, there are also new paper machines being installed, and older machines being transformed. Markets are expanding for some products, and new markets created for new products. As the world becomes more sustainably focused, there is exciting interest in wood fibers for new products. National brands like McDonald’s and Starbucks are challenging manufacturers to move from plastic to paper-based solutions, and pulp and paper mills are at the heart of this transition.

Study more than a curriculum

While many engineering schools across the country can deliver a curriculum, the University of Maine can deliver far more than that. UMaine has a long and distinguished history in working with forest biomaterials to create unique products. Given UMaine’s wide-ranging expertise – from paper to cross-laminated timber – we have rich connections with industry. This means our researchers (and their students) are tackling real problems. UMaine’s many centers provide opportunities for students to work (and get paid!) and do research. These experiences cannot be matched at other universities.

For example:

The Forest Bioproducts Research Institute is home to pilot-scale equipment to turn wood residuals into jet fuel
At The Process Development Center Cellulose nano fiber is bringing innovation to paper making and lends unique properties that could result in using fewer trees and chemicals to make paper.
The Advanced Structures and Composites Center is developing cellulose feedstocks for the world’s largest 3D printer

So, when you think of the paper industry, think big. Think about responsibly using fiber, water and energy to produce everyday products you use. Consider a career in paper if you want to be part of an industry that is actively working to replace plastic with more sustainable solutions. Bring your passion for a sustainable future to the University of Maine, where the innovative research, connections to industry, and pilot scale equipment can launch your career.

This article was written by Colleen Walker, Director of the Process Development Center at the University of Maine. Discover the incredible innovations happening at the PDC.