Water Circularity Put to Practice in a Water-Intensive Industry

The Great Lakes are an invaluable freshwater resource, holding eighty-four percent of North America’s fresh surface water, providing drinking water to more than 40 million people, and acting as the lifeblood that fuels much of the region’s economic activity. Green Bay Packaging (GBP), headquartered along an arm of Lake Michigan in Green Bay, Wisconsin and having 16 of its 37 facilities located in the Great Lakes Region, understands the economic value of this vital resource and has been incorporating water responsibility and innovation into its business practices as a result. An industry traditionally associated with heavy water consumption, GBP has used its newest mill to demonstrate how, with water innovation and circularity, the paper industry can reduce its water footprint.  

GBP’s Green Bay mill, located at the mouth of the Fox River, the largest tributary to Lake Michigan, pioneered water innovation with a closed-loop process water system in 1991, the first of its kind. More recently, in 2021, Green Bay Packaging started operation of a state-of-the art paper mill, designed with the goal of becoming the most environmentally friendly mill in the United States. This facility leads a new era of innovation in this circular economy, making containerboard with 100% recycled fiber from old boxes and office paper, reducing energy consumption by recovering steam and heat from the manufacturing process and harvesting biogas from an onsite anerobic digester, and partnering with a nearby municipal wastewater treatment plant to reclaim treated wastewater for use in papermaking.  

Leveraging shared values in water management, GBP engaged City and County partnerships to optimize cutting edge technology in water management to minimize impacts on water resources. In its design, the new Green Bay mill includes water efficiencies throughout the facility, with every gallon of freshwater reused more than 30 times before it goes through an onsite anaerobic wastewater treatment system. The majority of treated process wastewater is then recirculated onsite and a portion of it is discharged to NEW Water municipal treatment facility, where it is mixed with other municipal and industrial waste, treated, and returned to the mill as reclaimed water. After undergoing secondary treatment and disinfection at NEW Water, reclaimed water is purified with advanced filtration before being used again in the papermaking process.

Through extensive internal reuse and use of reclaimed water, the Green Bay mill returns, at a minimum, as much water to the Great Lakes as it withdraws. By design, the facility can internally recycle 1.1 million gallons per day (MGD) and reclaim 2.5 MGD of treated municipal wastewater every day, saving a potential 1.3 billion gallons of fresh water every year.  The reclaimed water of this scale supports a Net-Zero Water use in which the amount of fresh water withdrawn from a source is less than or equal to the amount of water returned to the same source. The basis of the Net-Zero Water balance is attained by offsetting freshwater demand with use of alternative water. The Green Bay mill is uniquely able to achieve this due to its reclaimed water and location in relation to watershed. The Green Bay mill receives city supplied fresh water, sourced from Lake Michigan, and discharges, via NEW Water, back to the same watershed. 

The Green Bay mill’s Net-Zero Water system was validated in December 2021 under UL’s Environment Validation Claim Procedure for Net-Zero Water, the first-ever in the world to achieve third-party verification.  In documenting the Net-Zero Water use model at the Green Bay Mill, GBP partnered with UL Environment as a pilot project undertaking for standards development of a third-party validation. The UL validation protocol is the gold standard against which other companies can measure water performance. 

Net-Zero Water is demonstrated here, when the Green Bay mill’s water return exceeds freshwater intake.

This Net-Zero Water use initiative preserves natural water resources by lowering water demand through reuse and use of alternative water sources that reduce the need for freshwater, transforming a water-intense process into a circular water model that is more efficient, resulting in reduced water per ton of production while protecting the water quantity of the Great Lakes. Circular water systems sustainably support water resilience, protect water quality and preserve ecosystems, and help ensure that vital shared water resources are available for future generations. 

Additionally, an offsite regional stormwater pond was constructed in partnership with the City of Green Bay to reduce solids in stormwater runoff by more than 80% before any discharge to the river, improving the quality of stormwater runoff. With the support of such partnerships, the mill operates with zero direct discharge to the Fox River and reduced impact to the Lake Michigan watershed, returning more high-quality water than it withdraws.  

Water circularity is an integral part of Green Bay Packaging’s sustainability vison and water resilience strategy. A material sustainable innovation and initiative, the GBP Net-Zero Water project is a next-generation water management investment, promoting Great Lakes water health, water habitat, tourism, regional economics, and community use. 

Author:

Lisa Bauer-Lotto, Corporate Director, Environment & Sustainability, Green Bay Packaging

Environmental sustainability has always been at the core of Green Bay Packaging’s values. Since its inception in Green Bay, WI in 1933, GBP has remained firmly committed to maintaining strong environmental and social responsibilities. A family-owned company, GBP is fully integrated in producing corrugated boxes from virgin and recycled fiber. As a manufacturer of paper and paper packaging, availability of abundant clean water is vital to operations, and GBP has been innovating in water resource management in the communities in which we operate for many years, especially in the Great Lakes region.

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