Water has been a precious resource for the making paper process over the years. It has remained vital to the creation of all existing types of paper, from napkins to cardboard boxes.
The traditional papermaking process historically uses a lot of water, but Georgia-Pacific mill in Palatka, Florida, wanted to find ways to reduce these amounts. Bob Blankenship, a shift capability leader at the Palatka mil, how technology has automated many of the steps in making paper and changed the resources needed.
He also led a fresh water reduction project at the mill that was recognized last year with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR® Top Project award.
“We have a certain amount of fresh water allocated to us for use in papermaking each year”, Bob says. “Increasing that amount requires use of additional natural resources that we want to avoid”.
Bob’s strategy is to reuse water from the papermaking process instead of releasing it. Having been in the business for 45 years, he was asked to lead the initiative to reduce fresh water use in the kraft manufacturing process. The Palatka mill was preparing install a new machine in 2019 that would increase production and efficiency, but would exceed the mill’s fresh water allocation.
Bob selected Matt Branch and Bill Murray, two team members from the mill operations staff, to incorporate the team. Both work on the wet and dry ends of the kraft paper machines, respectively, and each provided different viewpoints of the process to solve the challenge. They decided to start at the end where the water use was complete and work backwards, an unconventional strategy.
They monitored drainage flows and looked deep into water piping to understand where the water was going and how best to capture for reuse and Bob says operators on the floor were also very helpful in sharing insights about where water could be recycled.
After Bob had a complete overview of water usage and how to use it more efficiently, the team developed a solution to capture and treat waste water so it could be recycled back into the papermaking process, replacing the use of fresh water.
“For the points of greatest use, we were able to recycle this water back into the system”, he says.
The team also set up a digital solution to monitor how and where water is used in real time throughout the mill. Each operator has their own screen showing when a valve was open or closed, and whether water was flowing automatically or through a manual process.
The digital solution alerts the operators of increases in usage so they can quickly investigate why and whether they need to turn off a valve. It can also signal that a pump is not functioning, causing water not to return.
In just 10 weeks, the Palatka team saw results. They reduced water usage by 40% — cutting it nearly in half. However, Bob says the work is just beginning and credits a culture of environmental stewardship and teamwork at the mill for empowering the team to identify more opportunities to reuse water.
“This project showed the possibilities of what you could do with the water that you already have and not having to add fresh water to it. I believe we can reduce it even more,” he says. “All three of us are still really focused on this”.
Bob plans to share these learnings with other Georgia-Pacific mills to inspire more thinking around how to incorporate a closed water-reuse loop in other mills.
“There’s nothing more satisfying than to be able to pass knowledge on to someone else and see them actually benefit from the knowledge you have, because once you give them knowledge of how a process works or how something actually flows, then they add their spin and knowledge to it”, he says. “It just gets better from there”.