Welcome to part three of our series on our Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), where we’re digging into the nitty gritty of producing the UK’s most sustainable tissue products.
In this article we share our core results, the emissions that arise from the process of manufacturing Naked Sprout at our industry-leading factory in Spain.
“Why don’t you manufacture in the UK?”
Naked Sprout was founded in Dorset, our founders live and work in the UK and so do our team in marketing, accounts, customer service and logistics. So why are we manufacturing in Spain?
Our first rolls were manufactured in China, which is where most of the bamboo rolls sold in the UK are made. But we soon realised it wasn’t just the raw material that needed changing if we wanted to make a truly sustainable roll. So we visited some UK tissue factories and were faced with a sad truth, none were currently willing, or able, to make the big changes that would ensure a truly sustainable future for our company. All tissue and paper mills in the UK are currently powering their operations with fossil fuels.
This isn’t just a UK problem - it’s the standard way that tissue has been made, all over the world, for decades. In this respect, our factory in Spain is in a league of their own. An established mill, run by a family who have been papermakers for five generations, they have taken the long-term view and made the decision to use renewable energy for their power needs.
That’s not to say there are no advances happening in the rest of the industry. In September 2023 the UK’s largest tissue manufacturer, Kimberly Clarke (they make Andrex), announced that they had signed a new energy contract with a wind farm that will supply power to their operations at their manufacturing facilities in Barrow, Flint, and Northfleet.
Sounds fabulous, doesn’t it? And it is good news - we will always support the use of more sustainable energy sources wherever possible - but we would urge you to take a closer look.
When tissue manufacturers report on the energy they use, they are usually only speaking about electricity; the power running through the computers, lights, and machines at their factory. But that’s not where the bulk of emissions are in tissue manufacture. If you really want to understand the impact tissue making has on our climate, you need to know about heat.
Energy - Heat and Electricity
To make loo rolls, kitchen rolls, or any type of paper you need a lot of heat. All paper starts as some kind of wet pulp that is pressed and smoothed into shape before being dried. In Ancient Egypt they dried papyrus in flat presses weighted by rocks, each sheet taking about a week to dry out under pressure. It’s an extremely sustainable process but it’s fair to say the time needed to dry toilet rolls in this way would be prohibitive.
So how is paper dried today? Raw pulp is formed and pressed into huge sheets, which are then blasted with hot air. This heating stage evaporates the remaining water, giving the tissue the strength it needs before it can be wound into rolls. Most manufacturers will use natural gas, a fossil fuel, to generate this drying heat.
We consider this natural gas “energy”, but most companies don’t.
This means that companies who are focusing only on the way they get electricity into their factories are sidestepping the main source of fuel that they use to make tissue. The convention of only referring to powered electricity as energy means that the main source of climate-changing emissions is going completely unspoken and unreported. The process of making heat accounts for about 60% of the total power we use at our own factory, and there’s no reason to think that percentage would be very different in other tissue mills.
Once again, there are no shortcuts at Naked Sprout. Our furnaces have been converted to draw power from forest sweepings and biogas that comes from the local region, so we don’t have to use natural gas. And once we have generated enough heat we preserve it, with a patented process to conserve and upgrade heat and keep it circulating through our system, so we aren’t heating up from a cold start each time.
That’s how we dry our tissue. The remaining 40% of our energy is the electricity that runs through our grid, powering all the everyday processes and machines that keep us running. All of this comes from renewable sources; from solar panels, wind turbines, and hydro-electric generators that have been installed on-site at our factory. This is a huge investment, but it’s already paying off. Making these changes means that our factory can operate a secure, sustainable operation unaffected by the global instability we’re seeing in energy markets tied to fossil fuels.
We’ve got the lights on, the machines whirring, and the furnace nice and hot, and we’ve done all of it without burning fossil fuels. So can we say there are truly no CO2e emissions being generated at our factory?
Not quite yet. If you’d like another example of how obsessive we’ve been about absolutely every detail of our LCA - let’s talk forklifts.
We’ve already said that you need to dry tissue before you can wind it. What do we wind it into?
If your guess was “a giant toilet roll” step forward for your prize. Here’s a picture of our founders Tom and Leila with one of these rolls, called a “parent roll”:
It’s a hefty serving of tissue. The large parent rolls produced at our factory weigh an average of 1.5 tonnes, the weight of a car or a shire horse! The forklifts that lift these rolls need to pack some serious oomph. There are currently no electric-powered forklifts that can safely manage the weight, but this is an area where technology is advancing quickly, and we’re confident it will be possible in the near future.
For now, these forklifts are powered by diesel, which is of course a fossil fuel, and we finally have some emissions to count at the manufacturing stage! There is also a small amount of emissions generated as we manage the waste at our factory, and that’s about it.
How it measures up
In total, 2.8% of the total life cycle CO2e emissions for Naked Sprout are generated at the manufacturing stage. As far as we know, this statistic is unprecedented in our industry. Our factory is the only tissue factory in the world to have achieved B Corp status - and it's because of these remarkable lengths that they have gone to to secure a sustainable future.
By removing natural gas and non-renewable electricity, we have drastically reduced the standard impact of making tissue. How much of a difference does all of this make?
In our first post we mentioned the calculations made by the Carbon Footprint Company, who used known facts and published data from the tissue making industry to put together a profile of emissions for products made in the traditional way.
They calculated that 39% of emissions for bamboo rolls manufactured in China would come from manufacturing, 28% of emissions for UK recycled, and 40% for the standard virgin toilet paper that you find on supermarket shelves.
When you compare this to our figure of 2.8%, the difference is clear. Our manufacturing isn't the only thing that makes our rolls so much more sustainable than those made by competitors, but it’s a huge part of the story.
At this stage we have tackled two of the big questions that people ask about our operations; how we transport our raw materials, and why we manufacture in Spain. At this stage our rolls are still stacked on pallets at our factory forecourt, and they’ve got some travelling to do.
Next time we count the last chunk of our emissions. We explain how we bring the rolls from Spain to your doorstep in the UK, the climate cost of doing this, and why we don’t offset.
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