Ultimately the young company, based near London, is capitalizing on the need for packaging materials while working to save a lot of trees that would otherwise have served as feedstock. And at the same time, it’s making use of that glut of crop byproduct.
NAFICI’s brainchild is a process to transform agriculture residues into paper pulp for the packaging industry. The two primary applications are corrugated boards and food service packaging.
“We call the process ‘EcoPulping.’ It’s about saving resources and it’s about using waste otherwise left to rot or burn and cause emissions. At the same time farmers will have a new income stream,” says Florence Miremadi, co-founder and CEO of NAFICI Environmental Research.
What differentiates EcoPulping from traditional wood pulping is it requires up to 50% less energy and up to 95% less water due to liquid recovery, according to Miremadi. The process involves low heat, no pressure, and uses chemical recovery as well.
So far, the technology has market presence in China only, though NAFICI is working to expand its reach. Miremadi’s pitch to mills is that it can help their bottom line.
“We work to make it economical even at small-scale capacity to enable packaging mills to build their own EcoPulping plants near the feedstock. This provides an alternative to importing wood pulp to their packaging factory,” she says.
NAFICI debales raw material and mixes it in liquid in a biotank. Then what Miremadi calls “the secret sauce” involves softening the lignin in order to extract fiber from agriculture residue.
The next step, like traditional, existing methods, is a mechanical process to refine, dewater, clean, and screen material.
NAFICI built two small pilot plants; one in the UK in 2014 and another in China in 2017 to prove the concept and is now building the first commercial-scale plant in China. It will use wheat straw, which is the stem that usually goes to waste, and is projected to launch in mid2021.
NAFICI has a joint venture in China, and is working through its subsidiary, Shenzhen NAFICI EcoCellulose Technology, who will build more plants there.
And now the company is in discussion with European foodservice packaging and corrugated board packaging manufacturers.