Lorenzo Spoerry finds out from Sonae Industria (UK) how investments in green manufacture are paying off big – and leaving the competition playing catch-up.
After a number of years as an importer of boards into the UK, Sonae took a decision to invest in an £85m manufacturing facility in 1998. Today, the Knowsley plant is one of 28 group plants throughout the world. The UK plant construction was completed in late 1999 and the first board rolled off the press the following year. The plant uses modern technology to process recycled fibre as the primary wood source and not the saw mill residues traditionally used by the industry.
During the last ten years the plant has been optimised to handle recycled wood fibre as a part of an ongoing strategic move to ensure the future of the plant. In 2005, the company invested a further £6.5m in state-of-the-art cleaning facilities that enabled its Knowsley plant to go from using 50% to using 98% recycled material in board production.
“The idea behind the £6.5m investment was to combat the ever-increasing contamination of the raw materials we were bringing in. The way we see it, we’re preventing the felling of 400,000 trees a year, we are using a raw material that previously went to landfill. We’ve got a carbon footprint of 32,600 tons of CO2 a year, which actually beats the UK panel industry average by 50 per cent” says Dave Chapman, UK sales and marketing director.
The raw material for the particleboard comes from wood processors who receive wood fibre from the construction and demolition sector, the supply chain industry, and local authority waste sites. The material is cleaned and sized by suppliers before it is forwarded to the Knowsley site for further processing. The final cleaning of the material takes place entirely at the company’s plant in Knowsley, which is the UK’s largest wood re-processor, using around 1,200 tonnes of recycled wood fibre every day.
“We have very much gone down the green road deliberately. We recognised very early on in the plant’s development that if we didn’t start tapping recycled fibre then there was always going to be a finite supply” said John Huckstepp, human resources manager. Many of the company’s competitors have been forced to gradually increase the levels of recycling they do in plants that were originally designed to process virgin fibre. “It’s a huge advantage for us that a lot of the cleaning technologies were actually built into the front of the plant from the start.
It will be a brave company that in 20 years’ time is still trying to use virgin fibre,” says Huckstepp.
The Sonae Industria (UK) management is working hard to address the challenges presented by competition for raw materials from a subsidised biomass sector. “The availability of the material that we use as our feed stock is being threatened by the increase in biomass generators that are springing up around the country” explains Dave Chapman. Competition for wood fibre is increasing and is driving up the price of this valuable resource.
Sonae Industria (UK) is a member of Make Wood Work, a campaign started by the Wood Panel Industries Federation to lobby against what they see as unfair government subsidies for the UK biomass sector. Studies funded by the Wood Panel Industries Federation claim that the Renewables Obligation subsidies regime has severely distorted the market for wood panel production and could contribute to a considerable increase in CO2 emissions.
“Woody biomass energy generation actually produces more CO2 than burning coal, whilst the wood panel industry is all about carbon capture,” says Huckstepp.
All of the materials are sourced from the UK and this has enabled the company to capitalise on green credentials in the market place.
The company came 35th in the Sunday Times list of the Best Green Companies, an achievement John Huckstepp, describes as “a proud moment.” The 200 employees at Sonae’s Knowsley plant are well aware of the company’s eco-friendly spirit, with 72% reporting they are encouraged by their bosses to recycle and 80% saying they feel that the company does a lot for the environment, according to the survey by the Sunday Times.
Sonae Industria (UK) supplies a number of kitchen and flooring manufacturers among its industrial customer base. It supplies companies such as Kingspan Access Floors, Wilsonart, Symphony Group PLC and Decorative Panels.
According to Huckstepp, “For Sonae Industria (UK), sustainability is about much more than a green agenda. It is a core value that is incorporated into the management structure and practice. There is special emphasis on Corporate Governance and Risk Management. Sonae, in addition to creating economic value expects all businesses to act responsibly, both environmentally and socially”.
The Knowsley Plant works closely with Indbest, the head office best practice support team. IndBest gleans best practice knowledge from each of the Sonae Industrial plants around the world. Mark Callaghan, operations manager says: “It’s a very integrated business. We have a number of group initiatives that take place every year that are about benchmarking, sharing best practice and continuous improvement. We have an Indbest representative on every site within the company to report to the group on improvement initiatives.” The plant has been working with Indbest for several years. The size of the Sonae group has been one of the factors that have helped make Indbest a success: “We identify opportunities for best practice, implement those ideas and share them with the Sonae group. We listen to them when they visit and see how they implement opportunities. With 28 plants in the group, there’s a good chance that one of them is doing something in a better way than we are. The idea is to ramp up everyone’s performance.” The company is also working with a “Kaizen” best practice programme in partnership with the Kaizen Institute and takes great pride in working closely with union representatives at the company’s facilities, a relationship John Huckstepp describes as “integral” to the success of the company. “We have labour turnover and sickness levels both below two per cent and work with the union on site as a further means to encourage active employee involvement.” Chapman says: “We are fortunate to have a loyal committed workforce who continue to demonstrate their ability to adapt to the challenges of the economy and the market.
We have just marked the 10th anniversary of our business and with the continued support of our workforce, customers, and suppliers, we look forward to continuing our successful development in the future” says Chapman.