UPM Paso de los Toros off to a great start
The Paso de los Toros pulp mill is up and running in Uruguay – eventually boosting UPM’s current pulp capacity by more than 50%. General Manager Marko Sundqvist reports that the first months of the mill in action have proceeded according to plan.“We are moving towards reaching nominal capacity by the end of the year and then likely even pushing beyond it,” says Marko Sundqvist. The first pulp deliveries to customers were delivered in May.
The UPM Paso de los Toros pulp mill has an annual production capacity of 2.1 million tonnes of eucalyptus pulp. The mill represents the latest and best available technology, featuring best-of-class energy efficiency with minimal environmental impacts and optimised maintenance.
The total USD 3.47 billion project – covering the mill and Montevideo port terminal as well as investments in the local infrastructure – marks the largest investment in UPM’s history. Sundqvist acknowledges that running the vast undertaking has required extremely diligent planning and vigorous execution.
“The final push took place in mid-April as we began starting up various production departments,” says Sundqvist, a UPM veteran whose first stint in Uruguay was way back in 2006.
Eye on quality
During an intense six-week troubleshooting period, Sundqvist and his team made the final adjustments for the big kick off.
“We got off to a good start and have been able to maintain the quality of the product from the beginning,” he says, adding that the pulp produced at the mill stands toe-to-toe with Fray Bentos, the other local UPM pulp mill, with regards to quality.
Fray Bentos, of course, is a key reason behind the smooth sailing of the new mill – the expertise gained from launching and running Fray Bentos has proved invaluable at Paso de los Toros.
“We have people working here that had their start as UPM employees 17 years ago with the Fray Bentos project.”
Taken together, UPM’s total value chain in Uruguay – eucalyptus plantation operations, the Fray Bentos and Paso de los Toros pulp mills and related logistics – combined with its contractors creates approximately 7,000 direct and 10,000 induced jobs in the country.
“Looking at Paso de los Toros, there are about 1,000 people coming in through the gates every day, but a big share of that number is logistics. The core production figure is closer to 450 people,” says Sundqvist.
Paso de los Toros also has great digital developments – for example the pulp mill encompasses about 3,000 sensors to provide data for predictive maintenance alone.
“We utilise predictive maintenance to make sure that we stay a couple of steps ahead of the problems,” Sundqvist says.
“From the viewpoint of perfecting our processes, our digital tools have really shown their usefulness,” he continues, adding that the digital team at the mill is top-notch. “We have a great group of troubleshooters taking preemptive measures.”
In addition, honing processes makes for a safer working environment. Sundqvist says that the level of safety has been “really excellent” at the mill so far. “And that goes for both our own people as well as the contractors.”
Long time coming
For Uruguay and the country’s economy – a 2% increase in GDP is estimated – the launch of the ultra-modern plant is a big deal.
For a long time now the Uruguayan forest industry and UPM have been able to advance hand-in-hand, largely thanks to the national Forestry Law which was enacted in 1987. The aim of the law was to diversify the country’s industrial portfolio, ensuring sustainable land use and protection for its natural forests. Almost four decades later, it is easy to see that the legislation succeeded in ushering in a new, sustainable period for the forest and pulp industry.
UPM was integrated into this transition almost from the beginning, planting its first eucalyptus seedlings in 1990. The country’s first pulp mill in Fray Bentos was eventually launched in 2007. Still hailed today as one of the best pulp production units in the world, Fray Bentos paved the way for a twin project, Paso de los Toros. UPM made its decision to invest in the Paso de los Toros pulp mill in 2019.
Get it 100% right
Along the way the new pulp mill has gone through a comprehensive and thorough permitting process.
“Uruguayan environmental authorities monitored the construction of the mill on site throughout the project. The environment was a key priority during the whole construction period, and we are committed to maintaining that focus now in the production phase,” Sundqvist says.
The operating authorisation process included several inspections by the authorities, as well as third party audits by industry experts. Furthermore, UPM has its own extensive environmental monitoring programme in place covering water, flora and fauna, air, soil, noise and socio-economic aspects.
According to Sundqvist, when it comes to environmental concerns you can never be truly successful unless you also communicate properly – every step of the way.
“We’ve made an extra effort to let the local community know what we’re doing and why with regards to the environment and other aspects as well.”
Pulp pipeline to the coast
To service the landlocked Paso de los Toros, a new pulp terminal in Montevideo started operations in October 2022. The terminal is used for receiving, handling and storing pulp and chemicals needed in pulp production. The highly specialised, fit-for-purpose terminal is open 24/7 every day of the year and it can handle over 2 million tonnes of pulp annually.
But then there is the issue of getting the pulp from the inland mill to the port. For this logistical challenge, “Plan A” consisted of rebuilding the 273-kilometre rail connection leading from Paso de los Toros to the nation’s capital. However, as the state is still putting the finishing touches on the improved railroad line, the pulp mill has been using trucks for transportation. Then “Plan B” has worked out well too: “The truck traffic has been running smoothly, largely thanks to the solid road infrastructure around the mill.”
Rail transport kicks off in 2024
Along with pulp heading to the port, trucks are also en route to the mill with raw materials such as caustic acid, sulphuric acid and heavy fuel oil. UPM has a fleet of 170 pulp trailers and chemical tankers taking care of the logistics carousel.
Still, the trucks are only a short term solution and UPM is eager to start putting pulp on the rails. That day is not far off.
“Test runs on the rail connection will start in the beginning of 2024, with actual operations to commence after the tests. The rail operations will then be ramped gradually.” says Sundqvist.
World class achievement
Marko Sundqvist is – appropriately so – very proud of the milestone achievement: Paso de los Toros pulp production puts UPM among the leading pulp suppliers in the whole world. The company now boasts a balanced asset base and wood supply in two hemispheres, with two pulp mills in Uruguay and three in Finland.
“This is a great achievement for the entire organisation. Our pulp mill is a cost-efficient unit that brings much needed capacity, and it’s a clear forerunner in global, sustainable pulp production,” says Sundqvist, a pulp engineer who thrives on problem-solving.
According to him, the massive undertaking comes down to great planning and hard work, while keeping in mind that nobody does it all by themselves.
“It’s been such a big project that we needed everybody to commit to the common cause and work every day towards that goal,” he says, adding that the team-driven approach was the “secret sauce” of the entire operation.
Likewise, when asked about the best part of his job, Sundqvist replies that his motivation stems from working with people.
“Along the way, you learn a lot about others as well as yourself.”
At the mill, Sundqvist wants to foster a trust-based culture where everybody is encouraged to speak their mind.
“When there is trust, you feel comfortable in expressing your opinions, no matter what. That’s a solid starting point for great things.”