The annual haze that shrouds Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia in an unhealthy smog appears to have increased the environmental awareness of the average consumer, who seems more concerned about the environmental impact of everyday products available on the market.
Last year, Asia Pulp & Paper Group (APP) got all its products removed from the shelves of supermarket chains NTUC FairPrice, Sheng Siong, and Prime Supermarket. This was after the Singapore Environment Council (SEC) temporarily suspended APP's exclusive distributor, Universal Sovereign Trading, from using their green label pending further investigations.
This firm action by the supermarkets and the authorities was spurred by calls from the general public to go after companies responsible for the haze that plagues Singapore and Malaysia on an annual basis.
While government authorities in affected countries continue to pursue action against companies that carry out the illegal burning of forests on peatland, what about companies that make an extra effort to ensure the environment is protected?
While Double A's method of producing paper is no different from other companies, the way it generates pulp for its paper is remarkably unique and results in a win-win-win situation for the company, the farmers and the environment.
Trees grown not on plantations but spare land of rice farmers
The company uses eucalyptus trees to produce its paper as this fast-growing tree species, which matures in three to five years, is easy to grow and has a high pulp yield ideal for making high-quality paper with superb density.
Moreover, Thailand's tropical climate means that the tree grows at a faster rate than in a temperate climate, making the production of paper pulp for the factory more effective.
For Double A, instead of buying concessions to create plantations, the company's paper trees are grown throughout Thailand on vacant land around farmers’ rice paddies (known as the khan-na).
Mr Thirawit Leetavorn is the Senior Executive Vice President of Double A. In an interview with TOC, he said:
"In Thailand, 40% of our population is involved in the farming industry so we know how to grow things. Thailand is the largest exporter of rice, so we feed the world. We immediately knew that if we were to cultivate large forest plantations, we will be taking land from food production. So we needed to co-exist. We noticed that areas along the rice paddy, the khan-na, was not used for anything ... so we can grow trees along the khan-na, even as rice is still grown. We are still feeding the world, but we have another product, which is the tree, which is essentially paper."
Benefiting local farmers while not taking up space for agricultural purposes
Thai farmers, Mr. Lampang and his wife, Ms Hiang Duang-dee, has worked with Double A for more than seven years. The couple have been farmers for more than 16 years. Mr Lampang is one of more than 1.5 million farmers throughout Thailand who provides paper trees by planting the trees at the ridges of their rice paddies.
In his interview with TOC, Mr Lampang said that growing the trees along the khan-na poses no inconvenience to his rice paddy. It is hassle-free as he does not have to tend to the trees, which grow naturally by themselves and do not consume much water.
The special paper tree also has short roots so that unearthing the trees are manageable and do not disrupt the nearby fields. The tree also has few leaves so as there is no worry of insufficient sunlight for the rice paddies from the shadow of the tree.
Double A has different arrangements with the farmers: some choose to harvest the trees for the company, while others simply plant the trees and let the company collect the trees upon its maturity.
Mr Lampang says that he plans to use the additional income from the trees for his retirement savings. He gets about 800 baht ($32) per ton of trees harvested from his farm and is awaiting the second round of trees planted to be harvested.
Is Double A's model of operation a concept for a green future?
Double A was found to be carbon negative according to a study by the Asian Institute of Technology Thailand, KCL-Finland, and the National Center of Excellence for Environmental and Hazardous Waste Management, Chulalongkorn University (Thailand).
Apart from using trees that do not take up agricultural land, for its power generation, Double A turns its wood waste from production into renewable energy.
Wood debris, oversized woodchips, tree bark and other waste matter from wood processing are used as fuel for generating 100 MW of electricity and steam power that supports production. After using what the plant needs, the biomass power is sent to the local grid and used by 400,000 households in the nearby community, saving 340 million litres of diesel oil annually.
As for water consumption, wash presses are used by the plant to squeeze out water from the wet pulp which is recycled back into the process to converse water.
Apart reducing the use of water, a massive 36 million cubic meter rainwater reservoir was built by the company in 1995 to supply water to the surrounding industrial park and to irrigate the green vegetation around the mill such as trees, tapioca and nepia grass; the residents also draw water from this reservoir.
The company states that wastewater from its production is processed responsibly and is not allowed to enter natural waterways.
On the negative carbon rating of Double A, Mr Thirawit explains: "We would plant between 200-400 million trees, and as the trees grow it absorbs carbon. We estimate that about 7500kg of carbon is absorbed per ton of paper (1000kg), the same amount it takes to make the paper. We use biomass electricity from the byproducts of the tree that have not gone into the paper-making process."
Carbon is nevertheless emitted during the generation of biomass electricity; the company estimates the amount of carbon generated to be 2500kg per ton of paper produced.
But even so, if one were to pit its 7500kg of carbon absorption via its grown trees versus its 2500kg carbon output, the carbon footprint of Double A's paper production plant is zero or, to put it simply, a 'negative' 5000kg worth of carbon.
On the point of recycled paper, Mr Thirawit shared that when pitted against the environmental cost of recycled paper, the cost comparison comes up to be 4 cents versus 9 cents. Compared with the other mill processes, these two are the least environmental cost.
While consuming less is vital in reducing our collective ecological footprint, it pays to be attentive to the environmental practices of the products that we continue to use. With the haze igniting interest in the paper and pulp industry in the region, one can only hope more companies will strive to genuinely green their practices in ways that also create socio-economic benefits for local communities.
Disclaimer: TOC was invited for a field visit to Double A's production plant with transportation and accommodation provided. No monetary payment or equivalent has been received for this review.