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More than ever, our world needs a clean and abundant water supply to sustain populations, preserve the environment and maintain a stable global economy.

Luckily, we’re in the right business. Well-managed forests are nature’s best water processers. They capture vast amounts of water and are the finest water quality managers around. We own and manage millions of acres of forestlands, which help to capture and filter rainwater, on a large scale, before it enters the streams, rivers, and oceans on which we all depend.

Our manufacturing processes require large volumes of water, particularly at our fibers mills. Most of the water, however, is reused internally in our mill processes and then returned to the original water source, clean and available for the many other societal demands for water.

Water use and water quality go hand in hand. Using less water and ensuring it is returned to the natural system free of harmful pollutants are both goals in our Sustainability Roadmap:

  • Reducing water use at our cellulose fibers mills 20 percent by 2012 (compared to a 2007 baseline). We’ve currently achieved a 19 percent reduction and have set a new goal to achieve an additional 12 percent reduction by 2020.
  • Reducing discharged water pollutants by 10 percent per ton of production using a measurement called biochemical oxygen demand, or BOD, which measures the amount of oxygen required to decompose organic materials in wastewater. In 2012, we reduced BOD by 21 percent (compared to a 2010 baseline), exceeding our goal.

Our Connection to the Water Cycle

The forest products industry is intimately connected to the water resource cycle, from growing and harvesting trees to producing wood products. The diagram below shows the many ways our industry interacts with the water resource cycle, underscoring why water conservation and water quality are paramount to our company’s sustainability goals.

Source: National Council for Air and Stream Improvement. Water Profile Of The United States Forest Products Industry, Technical Bulletin No. 960. March 2009.

Water Consumption and Efficiency

Water Consumption

Our manufacturing processes, primarily those producing cellulose fibers, require water as an essential raw material. To minimize the required water supply, our cellulose fibers manufacturing processes internally reuse water by cascading from the highest quality to lowest quality requirements. The National Council for Air and Stream Improvement, an industry-sponsored environmental research organization, studied North American pulp mill water requirements. Based on that research and internal water-use measurements at our cellulose fibers mills, we estimate each gallon of supplied water is internally recycled, on average, 12 times.

The water we rely on is supplied from many sources, including surface water, groundwater, and municipal water providers. We estimate that, after water is used in our manufacturing process, approximately 87 percent is returned to the water supply source after being treated either on-site or by a municipal treatment plant.

The table below shows our estimates for where the water used in our manufacturing process comes from (water supplied) and where it returns to afterwards (water discharged). The difference between water supplied and water discharged is the actual amount of water consumed during manufacturing (meaning it either goes into products or is lost due to evaporation), as well as water used to water lawns or water that is not measured in our standard discharge processes.

Total Water Consumption1
Estimated millions of gallons per year
  2008 2009 2010 2011 2012

Water supplied2

Ground water 882 870 941 929 875
Municipal water 4,605 4,131 4,993 4,892 4,694
Surface water 50,877 46,892 46,319 44,709 45,573
Total water supplied 56,364 51,892 52,253 50,530 51,143

Water discharged

To municipal treatment 19 32 45 61 66
Cooling water 8,887 8,368 7,233 6,293 6,643
Surface water (treated on-site) 40,049 35,749 38,306 37,617 37,968
Total water discharged 48,955 44,149 45,584 43,972 44,677

Water Consumed

Total water consumption (supplied minus discharged) 7,409 7,744 6,670 6,559 6,465
  1. For total water consumption, we report only on our cellulose fibers mills, which use more than 99 percent of the total water used by our company.
  2. Water supply data are estimates only as intake measures are not required or possible at all sites.

Water Efficiency

Minimizing total water supply required is important for many reasons. The less water used, the less diverted from surface water or ground waters or supplied from municipal sources and the less that requires wastewater treatment.

For our industry, water efficiency is a more valid measure than total water use. For us, it is more important that a ton of fluff pulp produced or log turned into a building product uses each gallon of water the most efficient way possible.

As part of our Sustainability Roadmap, our cellulose fibers mills (our largest water user) committed to reducing water use per ton of production 20 percent by 2012, compared to 2007 levels. By the end of 2012, we achieved a 19 percent reduction and have set a new goal to achieve an additional 12 percent reduction by 2020.

Estimated gallons of water used per ton of production
2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Cellulose fibers mills total wastewater discharged1 15,978 14,409 13,831 13,428 12,990 12,982
Wood products facilities water use 84 95 101 89 89
  1. Wastewater discharged is used as a surrogate measureme to calculate water efficiency for cellulose fibers mills since monitoring and reporting of wastewater flow is a requirement of state and federal water quality permits.

Water Quality

All of our manufacturing sites monitor wastewater discharges to ensure compliance with regulatory requirements, operate efficiently and minimize environmental impact.

To improve water quality, our mills focus on reducing manufacturing biodegradable organic residuals in wastewater measured as BOD.

Organic materials come from the wood raw material and are removed by bacteria during biological wastewater treatment. If not treated, these organic materials can deplete oxygen needed by aquatic organisms living in receiving waters. Wastewater treatment also includes removal of solids, measured as total suspended solids, that might otherwise reduce water clarity, inhibit photosynthesis, and impair aquatic habitats.

BOD test results measure progress in protecting water quality since maintaining a low level of biodegradable organic materials in treated wastewater is essential for protecting receiving water quality. This metric:

  • tracks manufacturing process and efficiency improvements
  • is quantitatively associated with other regulated pollutants such as total suspended solids
  • is relevant to potential environmental impacts on receiving waters

In addition, where appropriate, mills have:

  • high efficiency wastewater treatment processes or discharge to public treatment facilities to remove pollutants
  • wastewater discharge permits with stringent required monitoring and limits on wastewater discharge quality

Some mills use additional approaches to meet site-specific seasonal water quality needs, such as:

  • engineered wetlands for additional BOD, solids, and nutrient removal
  • treated wastewater holding ponds that allow controlled flow to better protect receiving water quality
  • injection of high-purity oxygen into treated wastewater

As part of our Sustainability Roadmap, we set a goal of reducing BOD discharges 10 percent per ton of production compared with 2010 values. We have already reduced BOD by 21 percent, exceeding our goal.

  2008 2009 20101 2011 2012

Total estimated discharge, millions of pounds

Biochemical oxygen demand 6.3 7.3 7.7 5.4 6.2
Total suspended solids 9.6 9.4 13.5 9.5 8.8

Estimated discharge per ton of production, pounds per ton of production

Cellulose Fibers Mills
Biochemical oxygen demand 1.82 2.27 2.23 1.59 1.77
Total suspended solids 2.84 2.95 3.98 2.81 2.55
Wood Products Facilities
Biochemical oxygen demand 0.04 0.03 0.05 0.04 0.03
Total suspended solids 0.01 0.004 0.01 0.01 0.01
  1. Our Port Wentworth, Ga. mill treats the industrial wastewater from Imperial Sugar's Savannah Facility. In 2010, the Imperial Sugar Facility was restarted after an extended outage and had many startup issues which resulted in elevated BOD and TSS releases for the year.

In addition, we conduct in-stream biological studies that note potential effects on biological populations. Periodic bioassays test for potential aquatic toxicity in receiving waters. Participation in river basin and regional compacts helps address our contribution to multi-user receiving waters and ensure water quality standards are met.

On our timberlands, water quality is protected by:

  • grading and maintaining roads to channel runoff to the forest floor, keeping silt away from streams
  • building culverts and bridges to allow fish passage
  • seeding exposed road banks with grasses to prevent erosion

Robust research and monitoring programs are in place to ensure that forest management practices do not harm water quantity or quality. For example, in Uruguay, where trees have been planted on former grazing land, a long-term study was initiated to determine the effect of forest establishment on hydrology and water quality. Read more here.

Additional Water Quality Measures

Because elemental chlorine was eliminated in the 1990s for pulp bleaching, discharges of absorbable organic halides decreased by more than 96 percent between 1990 and 2012 and the concentration of chlorinated organics of concern — a byproduct of elemental chlorine — dropped to nondetectable levels in our treated mill wastewater.

Today, bleached wood pulp is produced using advanced technologies such as extended cooking and oxygen delignification (removing and recovering lignin, the chemical that binds wood fibers together), that further reduce the amount of bleaching chemical applied in the manufacturing process. These improvements have virtually eliminated chlorinated organics of concern (to below detectable levels in most cases) from treated wastewater while continuing to meet customer expectations for pulp brightness. Benchmarking research indicates our mills using elemental chlorine free processes are in the top-quartile of industry peers in terms of lowest dosage of bleaching chemicals required.

Chlorinated organics of concern are still found in some manufacturing residuals, such as boiler ash, and in some solids removed periodically to maintain wastewater treatment system efficiency. These solids are handled according to federal, state and provincial regulations, as well as our own internal policies.

Pounds of AOX discharged per ton of bleached production from our cellulose fibers mills
  1990 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
AOX 5.1 0.3 0.3 0.3 0.2 0.2

Story Image
Andrea Williams accepts the Savannah Chamber of Commerce's 2012 Environmental Excellence Award from Savannah mayor Edna Jackson.
Port Wentworth's pollution solution
Reduction project has financial, environmental rewards

Early in 2011, employees at the Port Wentworth, Ga., Cellulose Fibers mill were bracing for an anticipated tightening of pollution regulations. The mill's allowed wastewater discharges under its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit would be substantially reduced. Port Wentworth's on the Savannah River, which has been listed as "impaired" for Dissolved Oxygen, resulting in the creation of a Total Maximum Daily Load of pollutant discharges from all sources to the river.

Mill management formed a team to meet the reductions head on. Andrea Williams, Port Wentworth's process owner for wastewater treatment, was tasked with leading it.

"We had serious concerns about the restrictions we could see coming," says Williams. "A pulp mill's a complex operation requiring lots of energy and water, and major process changes don't come easy."

The challenges
One of six Weyerhaeuser Cellulose Fibers mills, Port Wentworth occupies nearly 200 acres of land at one of the busiest industrial ports in the eastern U.S.

Operating 24/7, the mill's 280 employees and 40 contractors annually produce 300,000 air-dried metric tons of bleached market pulp, largely for export. Each day the operation uses 12.5 million gallons of water and releases 10 million gallons of treated water back into the river. It also treats industrial wastewater from the nearby Imperial Sugar Company. The pollution risks are high.

Two culprits affect the wastewater discharge process. One is BOD — biochemical oxygen demand — the amount of oxygen used by the microorganisms that decompose pulp sludge. The greater the demand for oxygen, the more rapidly it's depleted, meaning less oxygen is available to higher forms of aquatic life. Maintaining a controlled population of bacteria is an ongoing challenge for mills.

The other is TSS — total suspended solids — organic and inorganic materials that absorb sunlight and also deplete oxygen.

Improving reliability, reducing load
To reduce these discharges to the river, Williams and her team improved operation and equipment reliability in the wastewater treatment system. While the mill's discharge was already below permit limits when the project started in January 2011, by July it had achieved a 60 percent reduction in BOD discharged (from 1,600 pounds/day to 650) and 27 percent reduction in TSS (from 3,000 pounds/day to 2,180).

And those rates have held up.

"Not only were the initial results impressive," says Rick Hamilton, manufacturing services manager, "we've been able to sustain the reductions and maintain nearly 100 percent reliability."

The next step was dredging retention ponds to allow more time to treat the effluent. Focus then shifted to improving the mill processes that produce wastewater. Implementing a new system to prevent and respond to spills has helped the mill both financially and environmentally.

"The fewer chemicals we lose in discharges," says Williams, "the more money we save and the less BOD we need to treat."

"The project's results are even better than expected," adds Hamilton, "Andrea's energy, initiative and leadership really pulled the team together to create significant, ongoing solutions."

When Hamilton and Chris Blocker, Port Wentworth's environmental manager, explained the project to the Savannah Chamber of Commerce, the chamber named the mill winner of its 2012 Environmental Excellence Award. Williams accepted the plaque from Savannah's mayor, Edna Jackson, at last month's Savannah Business Expo.

Doing well by doing good
In addition to benefits for Port Wentworth, the mill's actions are helping Weyerhaeuser reach one of its 2020 sustainability goals — reducing discharged water pollutants by 10 percent, using BOD and TSS test results to track progress. With a commitment to continually reduce its impact on the environment, the company in 2011 reached an "Exceeds" rating in this category.

"What's exciting about Port Wentworth's achievements," says Ara Erickson, Weyerhaeuser's sustainability manager, "is that, regulations aside, their efforts and level of performance have greatly improved water quality, which is our ultimate goal."

Communication, employee participation, being prepared for changing regulations, understanding future requirements, and identifying crucial areas for improvements all make up the philosophy adopted by the mill, says Hamilton.

"Getting this award is positive outside affirmation," he says, "that Weyerhaeuser takes action and makes the right decisions, for business and the community."

The recognition goes to the entire mill, notes Williams.

"People work hard every day to maintain this level of environmental performance. Their enthusiasm is truly motivating."

Last updated July 3, 2013