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A New Use for Wheat Straw in North America’s First Tree-Free Paper Pulp Mill

Amy Brown headshotWords by Amy Brown
Energy & Environment
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With the rising demand for more sustainable packaging products, Columbia Pulp, North America’s first tree-free paper pulp mill, is using agricultural waste—wheat straw—to fill the gap. The company, based in southeastern Washington state, says it uses 70 percent less energy and 75 percent less water than conventional wood pulp mills. 

Columbia takes straw left on farmers’ fields after wheat harvests and turns it into paper pulp that is both totally chlorine free (TCF) and FDA-approved for coming into contact with food.

The argument for using wheat straw as a source for various products, going beyond paper to include plastics and even car parts, is based on the fact that conventional methods of disposing wheat straw have their own negative impact on the environment. For example, the annual burning of wheat straw following the harvest creates significant pollution in eastern Washington—45,000 tons of atmospheric emissions per year—potentially contributing to health problems across the region.

Columbia Pulp is the first new pulp mill built in the U.S. in nearly 35 years, according to the company’s CEO, John Begley. Looking at the fields around its mill, Begley saw potential in all of that agricultural waste.

“We are located in one of the top wheat-producing regions in the country,” Begley told TriplePundit. “There are 4.5 million tons of straw grown annually within 100 miles of our mill, which will provide sufficient and reliable quantities of straw for our pulp production for years to come.”

Begley explains that, at one point, burning wheat straw was the largest source of air pollution in Washington state. To address this problem, the Washington State Department of Ecology sponsored research, starting over two decades ago, to find other ways to dispose of the straw. The process Columbia Pulp uses now was a result of those studies.

“Although using straw to create paper products is not new, the process we’re using is new—allowing us to use a waste product and create high-quality, totally chlorine free pulp, using far less energy and water than traditional pulping mills,” Begley told 3p. 

The company’s Lyons Ferry Pulp Plant in Dayton, Washington, which opened last month, produces 140,000 air dry metric tons of pulp per year. Because Columbia Pulp produces fiber that goes into packaging, it expects customers will use the product for a wide variety of fiber-based packaging from boxes, bags, labels, wrapping papers and molded fiber products.

Its pulp is also more cost-effective to produce, benefiting both Columbia Pulp and offering a new source of revenue for struggling farmers, Begley explained. “Straw represents a fraction of the price of wood because straw is a residual product left behind after wheat is harvested. It has little nutritional value and is a nuisance that must be dealt with at a cost. What we are offering to the grower is a way to deal with this cost and actually get revenue for it.”

Begley expects Columbia Pulp’s current facility will use 250,000 tons of wheat straw annually.

He also noted that the production of using wheat straw to manufacture paper is more efficient than wood pulp-based materials: Unlike wood pulping, our process does not use high-pressure boilers or a high water temperature, so the energy costs are also much lower than the traditional pulping process. Additionally, imported non-wood pulps have very high freight rates to deliver to the U.S., so choosing a domestic product reduces transportation costs.”

Image credit: Pixabay

Amy Brown headshotAmy Brown

Based in southwest Florida, Amy has written about sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line for over 20 years, specializing in sustainability reporting, policy papers and research reports for multinational clients in pharmaceuticals, consumer goods, ICT, tourism and other sectors. She also writes for Ethical Corporation and is a contributor to Creating a Culture of Integrity: Business Ethics for the 21st Century. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn.

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