Wheat straw-based paper could save West Linn's big mill
When the pale blue West Linn Paper Company mill was purchased and reopened as the Willamette Falls Paper Company in September 2019, the new owner's goal was business as usual. Keep making wood pulp paper, the bright whites that sell so well such as copier paper, envelopes and magazine stock.
But when Machine 3, which is about 30 yards long, was restarted in October 2020, the goal was to make paper using a percentage of wheat straw.
Wheat straw is cheaper than wood and quicker to grow. Rather than coming from a traditional forest, it has to be harvested from farmland, specifically, the wheat fields of Walla Walla, Washington.
In its 1970s vintage office, Willamette Falls Paper Company has a pile of samples on a table. There is a notepad, marked "Made with Agricultural Waste" and an envelope. Both have flecks of yellow straw visible in the smooth white paper. They were in a light brown paper bag that could pass for any fast food bag.
Pulp's not dead
Mark Sterry, a sales manager with the company, has been visiting a lot lately from Martinez, California. He says the company's Number 2 machine has been using 10% straw to make white paper.
Machine Number 3, meanwhile has been making 50-pound brown craft paper, using 40% straw. However, Phil Harding, a former Oregon State University professor of chemical engineering now serving as Willamette Falls Paper Company's director of technology and sustainability, says the amount of straw could eventually rise to 80%.
"We just don't know, it's still being tested," Harding told the Business Tribune on a tour in January 2020.
The green rationale is twofold: "In utilizing more straw we're diverting more product from being burned in the field, and at the same time, the pulping process for the straw is a much more environmentally friendly operation than (what) you conventionally have for a craft pulping," said Sterry.
He's talking about how they make the pulp in Walla Walla. The straw process uses less chemicals, which don't then have to settle out in clarifying ponds. Then the pulp is shipped from Walla Walla to West Linn.
"It's an extremely clean process, it's a true wonder how they're able to do it," Sterry said.
Fifty-pound craft paper can be used in paper bags or wrapping paper, such as you would wrap fish at the deli in or a bouquet of flowers. The company is making it, but also still looking for buyers.
For Willamette Falls Paper Company, it's all about diversifying. Straw paper isn't going to completely replace regular wood pulp paper any time soon, but running Machine Number 3 for days at a time is a good ad for how the business hopes to step into the 21st Century.
Because it's a non-integrated mill — meaning the pulp is brought in from outside, not made on site — the business is more flexible. It can experiment with different kinds of pulp.
To see Machine Number 3 in action is quite a step away from the world of quiet screens and cautious speech. It's loud — foam ear-plugs loud. On the factory floor most workers lean in and lip read to communicate, or retreat to the control room and its monitors.
The craft paper is 140 inches wide, and ends up in rolls that weigh 2 tons and are 25 miles long. They are later cut to the right width, depending on the order, by giant spinning blades.
At the beginning of the machine, in the head box, paper pulp consisting of 95% water is sprayed from nozzles onto a moving belt made of plastic mesh that's called the wire. It jiggles from side to side as it rotates, which sets the paper and straw fibers into alignment.
To start off, the nozzles on the head box spray a strip of pulp into the center of the mesh, and workers use compressed air wands to manipulate it into place. Once the machine has been threaded, like a needle, they turn on more nozzles until the paper is 140-inches wide. They cut off the skinny thread of paper and recycle it.
From there the soggy paper is pressed between heated metal rollers and a giant purple blanket, called the belt, to remove much of the water, which flows down the machine into drains. The paper then becomes less and less fragile as it moves down the machine. It is pressed between more hot rollers. If it looks damp as it comes off the end onto the roll, they turn on an infrared heater, which looks like a wide gas barbecue, to speed up drying.
According to Sterry, when the machine is working fine — and it runs 24 hours a day — it's a smooth operation that needs minimal intervention. As the brown craft paper flies through the machine, workers come and go, checking connections and occasionally smoothing their hands over the spinning final roll, feeling for bumps and inconsistencies. Once rolls are completed, they are moved to a storage area where they sit on giant spindles next to skinny white rolls that will become envelopes and notepaper.
The West Linn Paper Company closed the mill after a 128-year run in October 2017. At the time, the owners cited a pulp supplier stopping delivery and others refusing to extend credit as causing the closure, which resulted in the loss of 250 jobs.
Clark County investor Ken Peterson bought the mill and reopened it under the new name Willamette Falls Paper Co. in August 2019. It is a subsidiary of his investment company Columbia Ventures, which has holdings in real estate and technology. The re-opening of the mill opened up 125 jobs. Of the first 100 people hired back to the mill, 95 were returnees.
One of the returnees is Cafer (pronounced Joffer) Arac. The Turkish-born scientist was working a mill job in Wisconsin when he got the call to return. He says he came right back as technical director because he loved the job and the plant, and he wanted to work on the straw paper initiative.
"My heart was broken because we love this place, I love this stuff," Arac told the Business Tribune. "I was definitely excited when I learned about this place opening. I was fully employed in Wisconsin, in another paper mill, making more money. I still came back here."
A chemical engineer, Arac designs the recipe of the chemicals and additives of the pulping processes that are used in the refining process.
"It's like you make cakes, but you make them at 60 kilometers an hour," he said.
The straw content can eventually go to 100%, according to Arac.
"We'll be making hundred-percent tree-free paper," he said.
On the same page
Someone has to sell what the mill produces. So, Willamette Paper brings salespeople up from California to learn the process so they can fan out over the west to reach paper consumers, such as fast food companies and those that still produce paper catalogs.
Steve Price, a Sales Account Manager with WFPC, visits end users trying to make sales. For example, he's going to Patagonia, in Ventura, California, to try to persuade them to make their catalogs from paper with straw content.
"I went into Taco Bell last week there in Irvine," he told the Business Tribune. "They're super excited. They would use it for their tray sheets. It's getting Food and Drug Administration approval and they'll be able to use it as fast-food carry outs. And hopefully eventually as the French fry carriers."
Price says the straw pulp paper is the same price as paper made from wood pulp while offering the more sustainable solutions that companies are seeking.
"It's coming quick," he said. "Taco Bell's got a commitment to go to complete sustainability by 2025. Five years! Wow. Hallmark is another one. They're getting on the sustainability trail as well."
Ten percent solution
The mill has historically made fine papers. First the company used 10 % agricultural fibers in what they call communication papers, the paper used for offset printing on envelopes and magazines. Then they had the papers coated so that they work better in catalogs. A calcium carbonate spray is applied to a depth of five microns just after the dryer, Harding said.
It's the only coated paper mill on the west coast. Shipping paper is expensive, so they have the west coast market to themselves.
But selling straw to traditional paper buyers isn't easy.
"Ten percent is kind of where we hit, because if you disrupt people's thinking too much, what color things should be, they may not go for it," Harding said.
Harding — or Dr. Phil as he's known — emphasizes that the company still makes its legacy grades, and that's where the money is now. But in developing new products they hope to get into new markets, especially with a sustainability message.
He calls Arac "an innovative and risk-taking wizard. This is incredible what we've done here, largely through his working with the paper makers. And the paper makers here, these are highly skilled folks."
Having given up the academic life, Harding now calls himself, tongue-in-cheek, the company's Chief Explaining Officer.
"I really do miss my students. But I wanted to get back to actually making things instead of teaching other people how to make things... I am spending a lot of time explaining technology to people and then doing product promotion and sales and product roadmapping."
Other changes Harding wants to bring in over time are using recycled paper and improving the mill's energy usage. He sees a potential partnership with Metro supplying food waste, which the mill could turn into burnable methane.
Farmers like the idea of selling their waste for paper making. Wood products companies, which have a strong lobby, are less excited about anything which eats into their market.
"Who do you talk to promote a product? The answer to that is largely printers, end users," says Harding.
A big sale for the company would be selling 200 tons of paper to REI, Patagonia or Starbucks.
"Those we think would have sustainability or agricultural messaging. Another angle would be Coastal Farms and Wilco (the farm store). We'll go 'Hey we're buying agricultural waste from farmers.'"
The paper making machines, made by Norwegian company Wärtsilä, run hot. Even in winter they keep a few windows open in the cavernous space. But Harding says they are quite energy efficient.
"They're very well designed. Some things don't improve much with time." When asked if there are machines he wishes the plant had he replies "Nothing really jumps out."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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