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Amidst pandemic, the Willamette Falls Paper Company is looking to the future

PMG FILE PHOTO - Operations have continued, with some precautions in place, at Willamette Falls Paper Co. during the COVID-19 outbreak.The Willamette Falls Paper Company — formerly West Linn Paper Co. — has endured global crises before, including two world wars and the Great Depression.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, which has turned much of the global economy on its head, the industrious crew at the 130-year-old paper mill is looking to the future.

Since the mill reopened last year as the Willamette Falls Paper Co., a subsidiary of Columbia Ventures, it has pursued innovations in sustainable papermaking, chiefly papers made from agricultural waste rather than wood fibers.

Willamette Falls Paper Co. Director of Technology and Sustainability Phil Harding said the company has felt the economic impacts of COVID-19, but he remains optimistic about its future.

Harding said many businesses, hurting because of the pandemic, have postponed orders of paper products. Thankfully, he noted, the company has gotten many orders for mailings recently. Currently, he said, information about the 2020 census and elections, as well as information about education and health, is delivered to homes all across the country — all on paper.

Not everyone has the ability to access critical information on the internet, so providing information on physical paper copies is still essential, Harding said.

"It's still a challenging time for us but we're very optimistic and we are maintaining production levels," he said.

Like nearly all businesses, the mill has had to shift the way it runs to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Some employees, Harding said, are now working entirely from home. Others are working partly from home and coming into work on a rotating basis to limit the number of people on site.

The mill has also equipped multiple control rooms so individual crew members can run the same machines from separate spaces.

At a paper mill, though, some critical operations can't be done with fewer staff.

"Anything where safety is a concern, where we need multiple sets of eyes on heavy or fast moving objects, there's no way we would cut back on staffing," Harding said.

To protect those employees, Harding said the mill ramped up janitorial services and each crew member disinfects their work space before and after their shift ends.

"We're all looking out for each other. The more flexibility we show now, the stronger we are after all of this," Harding said.

The tight-knit community at Willamette Falls Paper makes the difficult times easier, according to Harding. Everyone at the mill has a community of coworkers to support them.

"The family environment means that people trust each other," Harding said. "They feel that the people they work with care about them, so when it comes to talking about things that are difficult or different, people are not defensive."

Despite these uncertain times, Harding said the company is still excited about expanding product offerings into different sustainability arenas.

"People who, in times like this, also start to think about the future and take some steps while everyone else is freaking out are going to be way ahead," he said.

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