In 2013, the CEO from Columbia Pulp, John Balgley talked to 20 wheat farmers in Washington’s Columbia County. The subject was the opportunity to turn the discarded wheat straw left lying in farmers’ fields into pulp to make paper products.
Columbia Pulp’s purpose in buying this waste was clear: making a free-tree paper, reducing the carbon footprint, and introducing a new income stream for the wheat producers.
Finally, six years after that initial meeting, Columbia Pulp became the first tree-free pulping facility in North America, with a design capacity to process 240,000 tons of straw that the farmers would otherwise throw away each year. What was once garbage could now be salvaged and sold for pulp to make paper products that didn’t require felling a single tree.
LET’S SAVE WHERE CARBON IS KIDNAPPED
Washington’s iconic forests are some of the most efficient carbon-sequestration ecosystems in the world. Taken together, these trees scrub 35% of the state’s total carbon emissions. The tension is evident: a state whose forests are a critical carbon sink has built an economy that relies on turning those forests into plywood, sawdust and paper products.
In the other hand, there is something that many out-of-staters don’t know about: Washington has 2.2 million acres of wheat fields, making it America’s third-largest producer of wheat.
There are some challenges to make this paper made of wheats’ waste idea profitable. One of them is that the stalk closest to the ground is too dense for the combine to run through, so farmers must figure out how to clear what’s left standing after the harvest.
Baling is the most environmentally friendly option. The question is what to do with all those bales of unusable leftover straw. That’s how Columbia Straw Supply comes in. The company works with local balers to buy up all that leftover wheat straw. Columbia Pulp turns it into pulp for paper products, giving farmers a new revenue stream and pushing the paper industry into a more sustainable direction.
A NEW KIND OF PAPER
Until recently, straw didn’t make sense for large-scale paper pulp manufacturing. The reason is that straw is about two-thirds cellulose, which is what you want for pulp, and about one-third other materials.
Mark Lewis and Bill McKean at the University of Washington worked together, and it resulted in the Phoenix Process, which not only uses 90% less water and fewer chemicals than traditional tree pulping, but also makes use of that final one-third of material to produce nontoxic biopolymers for fertilizer, de-icing agents and other products.
Lewis founded Columbia Pulp, along with Sustainable Fiber Technologies, which owns and licenses out the Phoenix Process. A recent life cycle analysis at Columbia Pulp found that the carbon footprint of this new pulping process is 76% lower than that of conventional tree pulps. Part of these saved emissions come from the process itself, but a large chunk comes from simply leaving forests alone. Clearing forests reduces carbon sequestration and replanting those forests doesn’t revert their sequestration potential back to baseline.
THE BIG TRANSFORMATION IN PAPER INDUSTRY AND ITS NEW PARTNERS
The product is catching on. A partnership between Sustainable Fiber Technologies and Anheuser-Busch is turning barley waste from beer production into the cardboard box that holds a six-pack of Corona. Sustainable Fiber has also licensed the Phoenix Process to Essity, one of the world’s largest producers of tissue products.
Just over a year after opening, operations at Columbia Pulp were halted by COVID-19, with 90 of the original 100 employees furloughed in March of 2020. But operations are slowly starting up again, and 75 jobs have been restored, with 80% of them now filled by the original workers. The deals with Anheuser-Busch and Essity are bolstering interest in nonwood pulp. The possibility of new regulations restricting single-use plastics across the U.S. could open up new markets for wheat-straw pulp products, as companies look for sustainable, paper replacements.
With the technology available, pressure is mounting on other big paper companies that produce paper made from 100% virgin forest.
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