Measuring the forest sector’s sustainability progress
The International Council of Forest & Paper Association’s (ICFPA) latest Sustainability Progress Report demonstrates progress in seven key areas of sustainability and highlights the role the forest sector can play in helping to meet global climate goals.
“Forestry workers and consumers of forest products are in the unique position to drive our move to a world with less dependence on fossil energy and fossil-based materials,” noted Jori Ringman, ICFPA President and Director General of Cepi (the Confederation of European Pulp and Paper Industry). “They are doing this through sustainable forest management, advancing the forest bioeconomy, and recovering more and more paper and paper-based products and packaging for recycling.
“I am proud of the work and leadership ICFPA has built over nearly 20 years. This report demonstrates the global impact of associations working together on a common set of commitments," he said. The ICFPA Sustainability Progress Report tracks progress achieved in 2020-2021. The overall trend is positive – reflecting that the industry continues to improve in key sustainability areas from baseline years.
Key progress on ICFPA’s sustainability performance indicators include: • 50% of procured wood fibre came from third-party certified sustainably managed forests, a 38-percentage point increase from the 2000 baseline year. • Greenhouse gas emission intensity decreased 23.5% from the 2004/2005 baseline year. • The energy share of biomass and other renewable energy increased to 63.7%, a nearly 11 percentage point increase since 2004/2005. • Sulphur dioxide emission intensity from on-site combustion sources decreased 74% from the 2004/2005 baseline year. • Water use intensity decreased 9.5% from the baseline year. • Investment in health and safety interventions yielded a 30% reduction in the global recordable incident rate from the 2006/2007 baseline with the number of recordable incidents falling to 2.81 per 100 employees annually. • In 2021, 59.9% of paper and paperboard consumed globally was reprocessed by mills to make new products, marking a 13.4 percentage point increase in the global recycling rate since the year 2000.
The 2023 ICFPA Sustainability Progress Report also includes info about the 2023 international finalists for the ICFPA Blue Sky Young Researchers & Innovation Award. The theme was ‘Building a Lower Carbon Economy with Climate Positive Forestry and Forest Products’.
Representing South Africa among the top three finalists was Leane Naude, a Master of Science (Chemical Engineering) student at North West University, who presented a more cost-effective purification method for lignosulphonate, an abundant and versatile alternative to fossil-based fuels. ICFPA serves as a forum of global dialogue, coordination and co-operation. Currently, the ICFPA represents 16 pulp, paper, wood and fibre-based associations from 27 countries, including many of the top pulp, paper and wood producers around the world.
South Africa, through the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa, is a longstanding member of the ICFPA and contributes data and case studies to the Sustainability Progress Report.
President Ramaphosa opens Sappi Saiccor mill expansion
The mammoth expansion and upgrade of the Sappi Saiccor mill was officially opened by the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, with a host of senior government officials in attendance alongside Sappi staff, senior executives and a news-hungry media contingent, in what can only be described as a major triumph for government, business and the forestry industry, and a massive stamp of confidence in the future of KwaZulu-Natal and South Africa.
Sappi’s intention to spend R7.7 billion to expand and upgrade the Sappi Saiccor mill, located in Umkomaas just south of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, was announced at the first Presidential Investment Conference held in 2018, against a backdrop of a desperate effort by government to lift South Africa’s faltering economy after the years of state capture and decline under the previous administration. The announcement of government’s ambitious plans to boost investment in SA by R1.2 trillion in five years was greeted by the usual cacophony of scepticism from many quarters.
Yet here we are just a few years later with Sappi’s part of the bargain done and dusted. It’s all the more commendable considering the mill expansion and upgrade was completed in spite of a highly disruptive COVID pandemic, a worrying bout of rioting and looting, unreliable electricity supply and a flood that caused widespread destruction across the province. No wonder the President was ecstatic as he cut the ribbon that marked the official opening. The Sappi top executives were also pretty chuffed.
“It’s more than an investment in infrastructure, it’s an investment in people, innovation, technology … It’s unbelievable what you can make out of trees,” enthused the President.
He said the completion of the project is a result of business, government, labour and communities working together, and lauded its contribution to rural sustainable development, its support for a circular economy and the environmental benefits it brings.
He called the development “a great boon to our economy”, and was highly impressed with the Sappi staff that he met during his visit. “They have a very positive vibe,” he opined.
However a little bit of a rain-check was called for after all the joyful enthusiasm, as the President admitted that the government would have to address some of the serious constraints impacting negatively on business, including streamlining the forestry planting permit process, fixing the under-performing freight rail service and untangling the bottlenecks at the Port of Durban which affects Sappi’s capacity to get its dissolving pulp product to market.
President Ramaphosa was joined on the podium by a powerful government delegation including Ebrahim Patel (Minister of Trade & Industry & Competition), Nomusa Dube-Ncube, (KZN Premier) and Siboniso Duma (MEC for Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs). Also in attendance were Global Board Chairman of Sappi Limited, Sir Nigel Rudd, Sappi Limited CEO Steve Binnie and Alex Thiel, CEO of Sappi Southern Africa.
“The board believes that the South African forestry industry is globally competitive and can make further substantial contributions to the South African economy,” commented Sir Nigel Rudd. “This investment reflects our confidence in our South African operations.”
Explaining the reason for Sappi’s investment in dissolving pulp, Steve Binnie said: “Global demand continues to grow for renewable textiles derived from sustainable wood fibre. Sappi supplies over 50% of the world’s Lyocell demand, the next generation textile material made from cellulosic fibres. This expansion project not only meets customer demand for greater dissolving pulp production and in particular Lyocell, but also significantly reduces the mill’s environmental footprint and supports Sappi’s decarbonization journey, whilst also generating an additional R1 billion per annum in direct benefit to the KwaZulu-Natal economy.”
He went on to express his gratitude to all Sappi role-players who conceptualised the project and brought it to fruition, despite difficult conditions and interruptions resulting from Covid-19 restrictions. “By using renewable and sustainably sourced wood to produce circular, innovative bio-based products, Sappi continues to have a positive impact on society and the planet by reducing and replacing the need for fossil-based products.”
The Saiccor mill, acquired by Sappi in 1989, established Sappi’s global reach into the lucrative international dissolving pulp (DP) markets. Since then, the mill has undergone three expansion projects to keep pace with global demand. Branded as ‘Verve’, almost all of the DP produced at the mill is sold globally into the Viscose Staple Fibres (VSF) markets for use in textiles and clothing for leading brands.
Sappi SA CEO Alex Thiel addressed the environmental benefits of the Saiccor project: “The installation of the largest sulphite recovery boiler in the world and the conversion of the calcium cooking line to the more sustainable magnesium bisulphite technology, reduces the need for coal-based power generation at the mill, leading to a significant reduction in fossil fuel energy requirements and increasing the mill’s renewable energy usage, additionally realising considerable variable cost savings.”
Technical fast facts • The expansion and upgrades include a new evaporator, recovery boiler, screening and washing plant, as well as upgrades to the bleach plant and pulp machines, improved recovery circuits and additional magnesium digesters. • New technology employed incorporates improved washing technology to optimise water and energy efficiency, optimised cooking technology for improved pulp quality control, the application of robotics to facilitate debottlenecking and shop-floor digitisation for improved commissioning, control and operational efficiency. • Upgrades to the woodyard to enable smooth logistics supply chain operation include the installation of offloading equipment, side-arm rail carriage chargers and new chipper lines. • Installation of the largest sulphite recovery boiler in the world, with the capacity to process up to 1,500 tons of dry solids per day.
Environmental fast facts • Fossil fuel CO2 emissions, SO2 emissions, water consumption and waste to landfill will significantly reduce and specific water use efficiency is expected to improve. • The project will help Sappi achieve its target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 18% by 2025. • A key milestone for ambitious decarbonisation plans and Sappi’s science-based target, approved by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) to reduce scope 1 and scope 2 GHG emissions by 41.5% by 2030.
Verve – Sappi’s Dissolving Pulp (DP) • Global textile demand is growing, as a result of population growth, fashion and rising wealth in developing economies • Against a backdrop of increasing global concern about climate change, the need to develop more climate-friendly solutions, derived from renewable materials that are not fossil-fuel based, is driving the demand for viscose, which is derived from DP. • Fabrics made from cellulose differ from other feedstock fibres in that they are breathable, absorbent, recyclable and biodegradable, providing a unique and appealing look, feel and drape. • Woodfibre provides a sustainable alternative to other feedstocks. Unlike many synthetic raw materials Sappi Verve is produced from a natural, renewable resource – woodfibre – that is certified and traceable. • This project makes an important contribution to supporting the transition to the production of low carbon raw materials in the wood based cellulosic sector.
Celebrating Global Recycling Day
To celebrate Global Recycling Day on Friday 18th March, the Fibre Circle has joined forces with two local packaging companies to empower 200 informal collectors with important info about paper and packaging recycling.
Fibre Circle, the producer responsibility organisation for the paper sector, has teamed up with food service and packaging producer Detpak and Remade Recycling (part of the Mpact Group) to show 200 recycling collectors that paper grocery bags and brown take-away food bags can be collected from households and sold with their waste paper collections.
The circular waste economy is a thriving network of collectors, buyers and processors, which uses recyclable material such as waste paper to make new products. Every year, more than 1.1 million tonnes of paper and paper packaging are recovered in South Africa and recycled into new products which can be recycled again and again, in many cases up to 25 times.
Paper recycling is largely based on different grades of paper. In industry speak cardboard boxes are termed ‘K4’ while used white office paper is termed ‘HL1’ (heavy letter 1). Cereal boxes, egg cartons and other similar paper items are deemed common mixed waste, or ‘CMW’.
The average consumer only needs to know whether something is recyclable or not, whereas waste collectors who sell to buy-back centres need to know exactly what they are selling and how much it is worth. It is important for the respective grades to be separated and baled together as they form the ingredients for the paper products they will be used to produce.
“Old cardboard boxes and paper bags will be re-pulped into other paper types – these will become new cardboard boxes and paper bags, and so the cycle continues,” explains Fibre Circle communications manager Samantha Choles.
Used white paper is recycled into tissue products such as toilet paper while several paper grades are recycled into common household packaging such as matchboxes, tooth paste boxes and cereal boxes.
“With paper bags now synonymous with suburban and city-based grocery deliveries after Covid kept many of us away from supermarkets, Detpak and its customers felt that it was important to close the loop with the production and recycling of paper bags,” explains Carla Breytenbach, marketing manager for Detpak.
In the run-up to World Recycling Day groups of informal waste collectors were invited to a discussion and demonstration by Anele Sololo, manager for education and SMME development at Fibre Circle, at Remade Recycling’s Midrand branch. Each collector received a pie and soft drink, along with a paper goodie bag containing a reflective T-shirt, sun hat, safety gloves, fresh fruit and a box of Smarties (in a recyclable paper box).
“Safety and visibility is a key aspect in the lives of collectors who navigate the busy streets of our suburbs daily making an honest living,” notes Donna-Mari Noble, communications manager for the Mpact Group’s Recycling business.
Consumers are encouraged to put recyclables such as cardboard boxes, pizza boxes, grocery bags and other similar packaging on the pavement for recycling collectors.
Other everyday materials that can be recycled include:- Wood - Wood is renowned for being one of the most eco-friendly and sustainable materials available due to the ability of growing trees to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the wood, which can be recycled countless times. Take care, however, to ensure that the wood is sourced from sustainably managed forests in the first place, which can be verified by an FSC or PEFC label.
Glass - Glass is infinitely recyclable. Made from all-natural sources such as sand, soda ash and limestone, glass never loses its purity, regardless of how many times it enters the recycling chain. The cost savings of recycling glass lies in the use of energy. Broken or waste glass melts at a lower temperature compared to making glass from raw materials for the first time. It also reduces air and water pollution in the manufacturing process.
Plastic - This material takes up to 450 years to decompose in a landfill. Plastic straws alone take up to 200 years to break down. The reason behind its slow degradation is that the materials used to produce plastic do not exist naturally. However plastic can be recycled, and may in future be used in the building sector. Plastic is strong, durable, waterproof, lightweight, easy to mould, and recyclable – all key properties for use as a construction material.
Metals - Almost all metals are recyclable with the process not impacting the material’s properties. According to the American Iron and Steel Institute, steel is the most recycled material on the planet. Other highly recyclable metals include aluminium, copper, silver, brass and gold.
Sappi teams up with WWF on water stewardship
Sappi has entered into a Water Stewardship agreement with WWF-SA (World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa), aimed at improving the water security in the uMkhomazi catchment area. With its significant manufacturing and forestry footprint in this catchment area, which forms part of the Southern Drakensberg Strategic Water Source Area in KwaZulu-Natal, it makes sense for Sappi to focus its collaborative efforts here, where its Saiccor Mill and 42 000 ha of its forestry land is situated.
The catchment also serves commercial farmers, subsistence farmers and domestic users in dispersed settlements across the area, but with it being underdeveloped, faces extensive development changes soon. To meet the future needs of all users, sufficient water at an acceptable level of assurance and quality must be secured. Sappi believes that this can only be achieved through multi-stakeholder collaboration across the landscape. To help coordinate and facilitate the approach, Sappi has launched a two-year project with WWF-SA to engage local communities, civil organisations, leadership and regulatory authorities in dialogue and cooperation focused on water stewardship. This collaborative approach is an extension of an innovative structure, known as the Integrated Community Forum (ICF), which Sappi introduced and uses to engage with local adjacent communities.
The multi-stakeholder engagement will provide a platform for open dialogue regarding water resources in the catchment and will concentrate on four main focus areas to improve water security in the uMkhomazi, namely: • improved water governance through multi-stakeholder engagement; • water-use efficiency; • removal of alien invasive plants and wetland rehabilitation; and • capacity development of local communities in natural resource management.
Commenting on Sappi’s decision to prioritise this collaboration, Krelyne Andrew, GM Sustainability Dissolving Pulp says: “The growth in population and production leads to a greater demand for water. In South Africa, the availability of clean and safe water continues to decline due to the effects of climate change, the pollution of our freshwater bodies and inadequate management of water supplies. Recognising these challenges, Sappi has prioritised Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6–the right to clean water and sanitation - as part of its business strategy, which proudly states that Sappi will nurture the renewable resources it relies on, by being environmental stewards and embracing sustainable business practices in all it does. This stewardship project is putting that promise into practice.
“As a leading supplier of dissolving pulp which is exported globally mainly for the textile fibre production, it is essential that Sappi continues to lead and contribute to the greening of the textile industry,” continued Krelyne. “Our partnership with WWF-SA responds to the Climate+ strategy of the Textile Exchange and their call to action to collectively improve the water footprint of the global textile industry. This partnership aims to not only improve access to water for all, both at a catchment and landscape level, but also to positively impact the ecology and biodiversity in the area and ultimately to boost resilience to the impacts of the changing climate.”
With water use having grown at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century and with South Africa being a water-scarce country, WWF-SA focuses many of its portfolio of projects on securing South Africa’s Strategic Water Source Areas, be they projects on freshwater, protected areas, agriculture or climate change. These are the areas of the landscape that deliver over 50% of South Africa’s freshwater to downstream economies, while only making up 10% of the country’s land cover.
Therefore WWF-SA is working towards mobilising water stewardship partnerships throughout the country to bring together communities, corporations, government, and non-profit organisations to tackle the water challenges in these Strategic Water Source Areas.
“For this reason, the partnership with Sappi is crucial, as WWF cannot work on its own to secure these important Strategic Water Source Areas,” says David Lindley of WWF, who will be managing the partnership together with Sappi. “It is only through collaborative partnerships with corporates such as Sappi, who are also large landowners, that we can begin to support a social change process for improved governance and management of our water resources at a landscape and catchment level such as in the uMkhomazi. This will ensure that in the future we will have some water, for everybody, forever.”
From a Sappi Forests perspective, Hlengiwe Ndlovu, Divisional Environmental Manager for Sappi Forests agrees: “We recognise the impact our plantations can have in the uMkhomazi catchment and on freshwater ecosystems, such as wetlands and rivers, and the importance of these being well managed. So, we promote water stewardship as a key part of our forestry management and make every effort to reduce the impacts of our forestry activities on water resources. The opportunity for green jobs through the partnership’s focus on alien invasive plant clearing is also fully aligned with Sappi’s commitment to Enterprise and Supplier Development (ESD) that promotes sustainable livelihoods through capacity building of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).”
Understanding the circular economy
What is the circular economy? It’s a closed loop of taking, making and re-using – as opposed to a linear “take-make-waste” approach. The problem with the linear model is clear. When we treat raw materials (such as wood and water) and energy as infinite, we end up with waste. Waste costs money – which in itself is waste, especially when you consider the costs of landfilling, the loss of reusable materials, and the livelihoods that could have been supported. There are also losses at the expense of the environment – greenhouse gas emissions when waste degrades.
The circular economy, however, is based on three core principles: reducing waste by design, retaining materials in circulation and restoring the systems from which resources are extracted.
Contrary to popular belief and opinion, the paper industry has for many years adopted the circular approach. Even before extended producer responsibility (EPR) was mandated by the South African Government in May 2021, the pulp and paper manufacturing and recycling sector has been embarking on process and production innovation to reduce its environmental footprint, divert waste from landfill and stay ahead of the circulareconomy curve.
Circles in the forest We should all know by now that paper comes from the wood of trees – even the fibres in recycled paper came from a tree at some point in their lives. In South Africa’s case, these trees are sustainably farmed in plantations, with stringent management of their impact on water, soil, neighbouring indigenous landscapes and biodiversity. Gone are the days of detrimental, wall-to-wall afforestation. Today, forestry companies work in tandem with wetlands, riparian zones and high conservation value areas to create a mosaic of planted trees and conservation spaces.
Sustainable forest management balances economic, social and environmental needs. While forestry practices optimise the land’s ability to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration, they also act as buffers for protected indigenous areas.
Depending on the species – usually eucalyptus or pine – these trees take around seven to 10 years to reach maturity. The reason we use exotic species is because they are fast-growing and we cannot – and will not – use indigenous trees for wood or paper products.
Currently, South Africa has 850 million trees growing over 676 000 hectares reserved for pulp and papermaking. Here’s the rub: less than 10% of this total area (67 600 hectares) is harvested during the year. The same area is replanted with new trees – saplings – often at a ratio of two trees for each one harvested.
This is the first circle: plant, grow, harvest, replant…
The circle of life The circular economy in forestry extends to leaving forest residues in-situ as a mulch for the next generation of trees. After harvesting, bark, limbs, leaves and small parts of the harvested trees are left on the forest floor, offering sustenance and refuge for creatures that aid in the decomposition of organic matter, which in turn attracts birds – and so we have another circle.
In addition, through photosynthesis, trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into food for growth. They also take up water, from the ground or from rainfall. They keep the carbon locked up in their fibres and give us back the oxygen, and some water is also returned to the atmosphere through transpiration.
Circular production processes Even pulp and paper mills operate in a closed loop process, by using natural resources efficiently – often more than once.
By putting them in our rubbish bin, paper products will go to landfill – or if they are lucky to be retrieved by a waste collector, they might get to a recycling mill. But this requires that people apply some basic practices to recycling paper.
Ideally, we want paper products separate from wet waste – this keeps them clean for recycling. Even the simple act of placing recycling in a separate bag or box for a waste collector who sells these back to a recycling mill makes a considerable difference.
Recovered paper is reprocessed and made into corrugated boxes, tissue, cereal boxes and moulded protective packaging that comes back into our homes, and which we use and recycle. And so the paper cycle – or circle – continues. The carbon also stays locked up for longer when paper is recycled.
Circles in the laboratory This is where our circles get really exciting. Some wood-based products are already in circulation in everyday life. Dissolving wood pulp is used in food, pharmaceutical and textile industries. Cellulose is used as a binder, emulsifier and filler. It’s in our low-fat yoghurt, cheese and ice cream; it’s in the bathroom cabinet in our lipsticks and vitamins.
Our sector can extract xylitol from wood to make non-nutritive sweeteners, and it can also make bricks and bio-composites from paper sludge, the leftovers from the paper recycling process when fibres become too short for use.
We can make plastic, membranes and films with cellulose, and biodegradable alternatives to fossil fuels from lignin. We have students developing biodegradable fruit fly attractant sheets from nanocellulose, and controlled release fertiliser coated with cellulose, starch and diatomite (silica). We can also make attractants for mosquitoes from cellulose-based materials, to help society in the fight against malaria.
By increasing the circularity in our sector, we can ensure that we not only increase our contribution to society, the economy and employment, but the forest products sector can be part of the solution to climate change and green economic recovery.
Consumers can play their part too. By using pulp and paper products that are certified and responsibly produced, and by recycling paper products, we can practice sound environmental stewardship and be part of the circle.
About the author: Jane Molony is the executive director of the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA), the industry association representing 90% of the country’s pulp, paper, paperboard and tissue manufacturers. PAMSA serves to promote the precompetitive interests of its members in the areas of education, skills development, environment, research and advocacy. Jane herself has been a long-serving advocate for the paper industry, in various capacities over the years: executive director of the Technical Association of Pulp and Paper in South Africa (TAPPSA), editor of TAPPSA Journal, chair of the South African Book Development Council, president of the International Council of Forest and Paper Associations, member of the Forest Sector Charter Council and board member of the Fibre Processing and Manufacturing SETA.
SA researchers push the innovation envelope
Three South African researchers have made it to the global shortlist of the Blue Sky Young Researchers and Innovation Awards.
The awards, launched in 2016 by the International Council of Forest and Paper Associations (ICFPA), aim to recognise, celebrate and promote innovations in the global forestry sector.
Justin Phillips and Hester Oosthuizen, both from the University of Pretoria, and Eddie Barnard from Stellenbosch University, go up against another 18 of their peers from around the world. The top three finalists will win cash prizes and get an opportunity to present their work at the ICFPA’s Global CEO Roundtable virtual discussion on 29 April.
Particle board from paper sludge Eddie Barnard is exploring the commercial viability of using technical lignin (a by-product from the wood pulping phase in pulp or paper making) and pulp and paper sludge (rejected, degraded, and spilled fibres and water from the pulping and paper making processes) to make composite materials.
Lignin has binding properties, which when combined with sludge, could be used to make construction materials such as a replacement for particle board. The use of lignin together with pulp and paper sludge could replace components that would otherwise be produced from fossil-based resources, and reduce associated waste, greenhouse gas emissions and disposal costs.
Cattle dip for killing ticks Justin Phillips has looked at how starch and nano-cellulose can be used as a carrier material for pesticide application in the agricultural sector. The insoluble solid active ingredient in the pesticide attaches to the carrier, which is water-soluble and allows for safer and more efficient and safe controlled release of the pesticide, especially in aqueous environments such as animal dipping for tick prevention.
A substitute for petroleum-based plastics Cellulose is uniquely positioned to substitute many petroleum-based plastics, however it cannot be melt-processed and dissolved using common organic solvents. This is why Hester Oosthuizen examined the efficacy of using choline chloride and ionic liquids, considered greener and less volatile, to make cellulose fluid enough to produce cellulose-based materials using existing polymer processing techniques.
“We are immensely proud of our finalists for making it this far, and demonstrating that South Africa can hold its own against the best in the world,” says Jane Molony, executive director of the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA). “As a sector we constantly look for ways to support young people with an interest in science and technology and are proud of the career opportunities our member companies can offer them.”
Wood – a renewable alternative to conventional materials As a sustainably farmed resource that stores carbon, wood is increasingly being used not only in the built environment for houses and high-rises, but also for its cellulose, lignin and sugars. These elements all have a role in helping the world find renewable and low-carbon alternatives to the likes of plastic, chemicals, steel and concrete.
“Two key advantages that commercially farmed trees bring are their renewability and their carbon storage,” explains Molony. “The fact that trees are sustainably planted, harvested and replenished on the same land makes both wood and paper products renewable and efficient resources. For a low carbon future, it’s tremendously exciting – especially when we look at the kind of research our young scientists are producing.”
An international panel with connections to industry, academia and public policy has been assembled to judge the awards, including: • Lyndall Bull, Forestry Officer at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (UN) • Barbara Tavora Jainchill, Programme Management Officer, Forest Affairs, with the UN Forum on Forests Secretariat • Fernando L. Garcia Bertolucci, Executive Director of Technology and Innovation at Suzano S.A. and Member of IUFRO • Professor Gil Garnier, Director of BioPRIA within the Department of Chemical Engineering at Monash University • John Innes, Dean of the Faculty of Forestry at University of British Columbia. The local round was adjudicated by Valeske Cloete (Mpact), Sanet Minnaar (Sappi) and Mike Nash, former head of PAMSA’s Process Research Unit and experienced chemical engineer.
The National Minimum Wage for farm workers – including forestry workers – has been set at R 21.69 per hour, an increase of 16.1% over the 2020 minimum wage of R18.69 per hour.
The new minimum wage takes effect from 1st March 2021.
In the past the Minimum Wage for farm workers was set slightly below the National Minimum Wage, taking into consideration factors impacting on the rural economy in South Africa. However this special dispensation for farm workers no longer applies, with the farm worker Minimum Wage reaching parity with the National Minimum Wage from 1st March 2021. Hence the big jump of 16.1%, which is way ahead of inflation, currently around 3%.
A wage of R21.69 per hour translates into R 173.52 per 8-hour day, or R 3 470.40 for a 20-day working month – before deductions.
According to Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi, the National Minimum Wage Act makes provision for employers that are genuinely unable to pay the National Minimum Wage to apply for official exemption.
While this wage increase will be good news for forestry workers, it is likely to be a challenge for many employers involved in the forest sector – particularly those reliant on manual operations – as their wage bill faces a hefty increase from March 1st.
According to Francois Oberholzer, Operations Manager for Forestry South Africa (FSA) which represents the majority of growers in South Africa, the timing of this wage increase is particularly unfortunate.
“The State has a history of poor timing and implementing major changes when conditions could not be worse,” commented Francois. “The implementation of the minimum wage should have been timed during periods of high growth and low unemployment. This increase comes when the country is experiencing record high unemployment and when businesses are the least profitable they have ever been.
“FSA did make a submission to the Minimum Wage Commission’s proposed increase. Like other industry associations in the agriculture sector, our recommendations were unfortunately not successful. As an industry we support the objectives of the Act regarding the need to eradicate poverty and inequality, but we would have preferred to see a phased approach to the equalization of the minimum wage.
“The 16% increase in minimum wage will without a doubt place a lot of pressure on the forestry sector. This is exacerbated by low international prices for dissolving pulp since 2019 as well as a poor production year in 2020 due to the pandemic that saw a 15% decrease in volumes produced year on year.”
According to FSA, this minimum wage could result in further job losses and increasing mechanisation in the forestry sector.
“It is a bit early to estimate any levels of job losses,” said Francois. “The forestry sector in many instances pays wages above the minimum wage. This is unfortunately not the norm and FSA will soon conduct a survey to quantify the impact of the significant increase in minimum wage which will provide some insight on possible job losses.”
Small-scale growers Does this increase put wages out of the reach of most small-scale / community forestry operations … meaning they will likely be unable to comply, which has other consequences, e.g. they can’t get certified if they don’t comply with the minimum wage?
“The small and medium growers will undoubtedly be most severely affected,” continued Francois. “We do hope that all growers that will not be able to implement the new minimum wage apply for the exemption offered by the State.
Unfortunately, the exemption is only a one-year deferment and most small-scale growers will find it difficult to comply to the new minimum wage the following year. More information on this exemption is available on our website www.forestrysouthafrica.co.za.”
Not enough Jerry Nkosi of the Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood & Allied Workers’ Union (CEPPWAWU), which represents some 3 000 forestry workers, welcomed the increase in the minimum wage, but said it wasn’t enough to address the inequalities in the South African labour market.
“CEPPWAWU welcomes the announcement by Government that the NMW for the forestry and farm workers will increase from 1 March 2021,” commented Jerry. “However, given the inequality and the big gap between the income of forestry and farm workers compared to other sectors, the increase is not much significant. An increase is an increase but it is the value that counts. Is this a valuable increase? Yes. Does it address the gaps and inequalities? No.
“It is in this vein that CEPPWAWU is advocating for the amendment of the Constitution for the Wood and Paper Bargaining Council to include forestry. This will allow forestry workers to be covered by the Council and allow the Union to negotiate for them centrally.”
The forest sector currently employs around 59 000 people directly across South Africa. Latest figures show that nationally unemployment is edging above the 40% mark, with the majority of jobless people residing in rural areas.