Paper is frequently considered a greener alternative to plastic, yet the paper industry, in its production, consumes vast amounts of water.

Despite claims from companies in the pulp and paper sector that they are integrating new technologies to reduce water consumption, the pressing question remains: are they adapting rapidly enough in the face of our changing climate?

The UPM Paso de Los Toros facility, one of the world’s largest pulp mills, recently commenced operations in Uruguay, situated in the country’s centre. However, its inauguration coincided with Uruguay facing its most severe drought on record, prompting concerns about the facility’s water usage.

Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, even experienced a shortage of fresh drinking water this year due to unprecedentedly low levels of rainfall. For months, authorities had to draw water from a river estuary where seawater mixes with freshwater, resulting in slightly salty tap water.

This situation led to public protests, with demonstrators banging empty plastic bottles, expressing grievances that wood-pulping mills and their forestry suppliers were consuming excessive amounts of water.

“It’s true that there’s been a drought, but this crisis is caused by our economic model,” said Isabel Figari, one of the protestors. “Today, pulp mills have water, and we the people don’t.”

Uruguay’s pulp mills transform eucalyptus and pine wood into cellulose, which is subsequently exported for paper production overseas.

Operated by the Finnish company UPM, the new facility in Paso de los Toros, when operating at full capacity, will yield 2.1 million tonnes of cellulose annually, effectively doubling Uruguay’s total output. This surge is anticipated to propel the country from the 12th to the 11th largest global producer, surpassing Chile. The United States leads as the primary producer, closely followed by Brazil.

In UPM’s state-of-the-art mill, wood undergoes chipping and is then subjected to high-pressure boiling with sodium hydroxide and sodium sulphide. This process dissolves the lignin in the wood, leaving cellulose fibres. The cellulose is subsequently bleached using chlorine dioxide and hydrogen peroxide, requiring a substantial amount of water.

The mill draws 129 million litres of water daily from the local Rio Negro river. The wastewater undergoes treatment before being reintroduced into the river system.

UPM operates an additional pulp mill, Fray Bentos, situated in southwest Uruguay. The company emphasizes that both facilities are located several hundred kilometers from Montevideo, in regions unaffected by water scarcity, absolving them of responsibility for water shortages in the capital.

In a bid to diminish water consumption, the company asserts its adoption of cutting-edge recycling technologies. Notably, at the Paso de Los Toros mill, when wood chips undergo boiling, the water vapour is condensed and recycled.

Following the pulping of cellulose, the water is extracted and repurposed in the subsequent bleaching process. In essence, the water undergoes recycling 100 times before reaching the treatment phase and eventual discharge into the river.

“This is an area of continuous work and development,” says Marcos Battegazzore, vice president of UPM’s operations in Uruguay. “We have reduced the amount of water we take from the Uruguay River at Fray Bentos by almost 25%, and have also incorporated these water-saving technologies into our new plant in Paso de Los Toros.

“As technology develops there will be more possibilities to improve recycling levels within mills.”

Environmentalists in Uruguay express not only apprehension regarding the water consumption of pulp mills but also a deeper concern that treated waste water could potentially contaminate rivers.

Dr. Diana Míguez, a senior scientist at Latitud, a Uruguayan research group, conducted research on the impact of effluent from the Fray Bentos mill on fish hormones in the adjacent Uruguay River.

Her doctoral study investigated whether exposure to pulp mill effluent affected the egg production of minnows reared in her laboratory. The results indicated that minnows exposed to the effluent produced half the number of eggs compared to the control group.

Additionally, a survey of 1,000 native fish from the Uruguay River revealed that male fish downstream from the pulp mill exhibited smaller testes.

UPM’s Mr Battegazzore says the company has “a very, very strict monitoring plan that includes the follow up of the biota in the river on annual basis and which involves local and international scientists”.

He adds: “This is the standard way of monitoring, and it began two years before the mill was in operation, so it’s a very reliable baseline. All this monitoring has revealed that there has been no change in the fish population in the river basin.”

UPM asserts that its Fray Bentos facility adheres to the European Commission’s “best available techniques” standards for emissions.

Additionally, at the newly established Paso de Los Toros plant, real-time water monitoring results are publicly accessible on the website of the Uruguayan environmental authorities.

However, pollution concerns heightened following a sodium hydroxide leak from the Paso de los Toros plant in August, leading to the discovery of dead fish and plants in a nearby stream and lagoon, as reported by Uruguayan environment ministry inspectors.

UPM acknowledges detecting the substance in a field adjacent to the site and promptly implemented corrective measures, notifying environmental authorities.

Yet, the focus extends beyond water usage, with scrutiny on the extensive planting of eucalyptus and pine trees covering over 1.2 million hectares in Uruguay for paper pulp production.

Juan de Andrés, a small-scale cattle farmer in the Cerro Largo department, contends that densely-planted eucalyptus stands, which absorb substantial soil moisture, are contributing to the drying of his nearby land.

“When I was growing up we took water from a well,” he says. “We’d take 300 or 400 litres every day. Now I don’t think we can get 400 litres a week. With so many plantations, there’s an incredible competition for water.”

Uruguay’s Minister of Industry, Omar Paganini, asserts that there is no evidence, after three decades of cultivating eucalyptus plantations, indicating a reduction in water levels in the country.

Unlike some regions where eucalyptus replaces natural forests, in Uruguay, these plantations are established on grasslands. While most experts, including UPM, acknowledge that eucalyptus plantations consume more water than natural grasslands, the determining factor is the availability of sufficient rainfall to replenish local water sources.

According to Daniel Panario, Director of the Environmental Science and Ecology Institute at the University of the Republic in Uruguay, in the rainy sub-tropical north of the country, tree plantations have minimal impact on local water levels.

However, in other regions with lower precipitation, such plantations often lead to reduced water levels. Regardless of location, Panario highlights that monocultures contribute to soil degradation and diminish biodiversity.

“Eucalyptus and pines generate irreversible changes in the physical chemical properties of the soil. The soil becomes acidic very quickly,” he says.



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