Thoughts on Paper
The Long Life of an Ephemeral Medium
6247 International Paper’s mill in Savannah, Georgia makes containerboard, corrugated cardboard, and industrial packaging. International Paper is likely the largest paper company in the world, and has more than a dozen large paper mills in the southern United States. CLUI photo
FROM PRINTED BOOKS TO OFFICE reports, and from junk mail to newsletters like this one, paper is still a major communications medium. In other forms, like cardboard folded to make a box, paper becomes the way our purchases come to us, along with much of the supply chain behind them. Then there is the class of paper objects made to be disposed of after absorbing small amounts of moisture, the part of the industry known as tissue, such as paper towels, napkins, toilet paper, and diapers. All of this, and more, adds up to around 90 million tons of paper consumed every year in the USA, or around 700 pounds per person. 
 
Although China’s production and consumption of paper surpassed ours more than ten years ago (they consume around 110 million tons a year, and produce 25% of the world supply), the USA is still the largest per capita consumer of paper. The US makes around 20% of the world supply, and generates much of what it consumes. 
 
Despite the fact that we dispose of 16 billion paper cups a year (and 350 million magazines, and 24 billion newspapers, and…), domestic consumption has decreased most years, since a peak in 2006. Paper use globally, though, is going up, and US plants and companies supply much of it.
 
There are around 450 paper mills in the USA. Many of them are small or medium sized plants, using pulp supplied by others, to make rolls and sheets of paper. Specialty paper mills make different types of coated paper for specific applications, like glossy paper for magazines and advertising material using high-density color printing. Others make paper that is laminated with plastics for food product containers, like juice and milk cartons.
 
Paper of this type, as well as office paper, and paper used for quality book printing, is usually made from kraft paper, which is produced from chemically pulped wood. This process uses sulfates and other chemicals to dissolve the lignin in wood, which otherwise breaks down and causes paper to yellow, while preserving the cellulose fibers, which form the structure of paper when it is pressed and dried in the mill. In addition to bleach, which whitens the paper, calcium carbonate and other additives can make this paper harder, denser, and smoother—all better for high-density printing. Lots of wood is lost in chemical pulping, though, and more chemicals are used, making it more than twice as consumptive as the less common second process used for modern paper making, mechanical pulping.
 
In mechanical pulping, chipped wood is fed into vats of heated water, making a soup, which is ground up mechanically, then squished and squeezed to form paper.  Less material is wasted, but the lignin stays in, and later reacts to light and oxygen, making the paper yellow over time. Also, the fibers of cellulose that form the basis of the paper are shortened through all the grinding, so the paper is rougher, less uniform, and structurally weaker. Though at less than half the cost of chemically pulped paper, this is the preferred method for applications that need less longevity, smoothness, and strength, such as cardboard, newsprint, and lower cost flyers and books (including the mass-produced paperback novels starting in the late 1940s, known as pulp fiction).
 
Paper is one of the most recyclable and recycled materials, with as much as 65% diverted from the waste stream in the USA to be reused, and accounting for as much as two-thirds of all recycled material. Used paper and cardboard is deinked, and separated from any metal, plastics, or other contaminants, then added to water to make pulp. Usually some wood cellulose is added to help provide fibrous structure for the paper. Though waste paper can be up-cycled to form higher quality papers by combining new virgin wood pulp with some percentage of  post consumer waste, recycled paper is more often down-cycled from, say, a glossy magazine to cardboard. 
 
6248 The Catawba Paper Mill in South Carolina opened in 1957, and makes pulp and paper products, employing close to 500 people. It was built and operated by Canadian companies, most recently Resolute Forest Products, of Montreal. In 2018 it was sold, for $300 million, to New-Indy, a privately held paper and cardboard box company, based in Ontario, California. Google Earth image
The industry is producing more and more of this recovered paper, especially for packaging, by developing new types of paper-based impact absorption material that replace Styrofoam, plastic bubble wrap, and other unrecyclable petrochemical-based materials. The industry is also responding to an increase in demand for corrugated containerboard, as consumers in the USA order more from the internet. An added boost comes from the fact that a few years ago China closed its shores to the high volume of waste paper that came from the US, which was among the nation’s most exported material. China said it had enough of its own, and it no longer wanted to be used as a dumping ground for US trash (much of the paper is contaminated with food and other waste material, due to poor practices at the industrial and consumer levels). As a result, there is a glut of waste paper in the US, and now even Chinese companies are buying recently shuttered US mills to produce containerboard from domestic scrap. The growth in this sector of the paper industry caused one industry trade group to claim, “brown paper packaging never looked so good!” 
 
6249 This paper mill south of Skowhegan is one of a half dozen or so major paper mills still operating in Maine. It is one of two in the state owned by Sappi Limited, and makes pulp and paper from trees harvested in Maine. Google Earth image
Though wood and paper seem inexorably linked, they aren’t. Early forms of paper were made from smaller—and more quickly growing—plant fiber like hemp, and fibrous byproducts from plants like sugar cane. Before the invention of industrialized modern papermaking in the late 19th century, a lot of paper was made from old clothing—rags—which at the time were made of organic materials like linen (made from flax) and cotton. Some paper, including US currency, is still made from old cotton clothing. Making paper from these materials consumes less chlorine for bleaching, and contains no wood lignin, which, amongst other things, makes paper that is less acidic and lasts longer. Books and other paper records printed prior to the use of wood cellulose (prior to around 1900), are going to be with us longer than what we have made in modern times. 
 
It could be that the future of paper will be more plant fiber-based, instead of wood fiber-based. Until then, though, the vast majority of paper continues to be made from trees, and around a third of all the trees harvested in the US are for paper. These trees come from private land, much of it owned by timber companies and large family holdings.
 
Though it recently sold off its paper production division, the wood products company Weyerhaeuser is the largest owner of US forestland: 12.4 million acres, about the size of West Virginia. Individuals and families that own large amounts of forest include John Malone, the former CEO of Telecommunications Incorporated, who is the largest private landowner in the USA, with more than 2.2 million acres (around 1 million of which is timberland in Maine). The second largest private landowner in the country, the Emerson family, owns the timber company Sierra Pacific. The Reed family, the fourth largest private landowner, has 1.4 million acres of timberland in the Northwest. The Irving family, ranked as the sixth largest private landowner in the USA, has substantial holdings of timberland in Maine, as do the Pingree family, number 11 on the list. 
 
The harvest of trees and the delivery of postconsumer paper waste, along with some other byproducts that are added to pulp, like cotton rags, cotton linters, and straw, finds its way to the hundred or so pulping plants in the USA. Most of these pulping plants are next to, or integrated with, a paper mill, and some supply market pulp to the many domestic paper mills that don’t make pulp, or ship it overseas.
 
6250 International Paper’s Pensacola Paper Mill, in Cantonment, Florida, makes containerboard and industrial packaging. CLUI photo
From Plants to Paper: Paper Plants in the USA
Pulp mills in the USA are located close to timber sources. These regions are the Pacific Northwest, the Upper Midwest, the Northeast, and the Southeast—pretty much everywhere except the Great Plains and the arid Southwest. Historically, pulp and paper mills were located along the rivers of the Northeast. These rivers supplied the vast amounts of water consumed in the process (as well as providing a way to remove wastes, downstream). Energy was captured by damming rivers (in some places dams also flooded vast areas to move logs to the mill, regions known as flowage). Some of these old brick mills are still operating. Though Maine has one of the largest contiguous timberland forests in the nation, as well as a number of large mills still online, production in the Upper Midwest surpassed the Northeast in the early 1900s, and to this day there are more paper mills in Wisconsin than in any other state. 
 
But it is in the Southeast where the biggest modern pulp and paper mills can be found, especially in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina. Six of the largest paper companies in the USA have their headquarters in the Southeast (three in Georgia, and three in Tennessee), including the biggest of them all, and the biggest paper company in the USA: International Paper.
 
Though paper companies change names as they are bought, sold, and consolidated, International Paper, now based in Memphis, has been around since 1898, when 17 mills in the Northeast joined forces to form the company. Since then it has maintained its status at or near the top of the list of largest paper companies. Today it supplies 20% of the US market for paper, and has a major presence around the world, with a total of 52,000 employees, and $22 billion in annual sales. Its purchase of Hammermill Paper in 1986 made the company the largest producer of office paper, and the US government its largest customer. Over the years International Paper has sold off its coated paper and its beverage and consumer packaging businesses, while expanding its pulp and containerboard production by purchasing these divisions from Weyerhaeuser (which got out of papermaking by 2016, to focus on other wood products, like lumber).
 
6251 Graphic Packaging International operates this plant south of Texarkana, Texas, one of a few large paper mills operated by the company to supply paperboard and other materials for its packaging products, which include boxes for consumer food products like breakfast cereal and frozen foods. Google Earth image
Currently the second largest paper producer in the US is Georgia-Pacific, based in Atlanta, and owned by the Koch brothers (Koch Industries) since 2005. GP started out as a lumber company, and it still is. It moved into paper production by opening a massive pulp and paper mill in Toledo, Oregon, in the 1950s, then expanded further by acquisitions. Its purchase of the Fort James Corporation in 2000 moved it deeper into toilet paper and paper towel production, including producing the widely distributed Quilted Northern and Brawny brands. GP also makes office paper, paper plates and cups, diapers, commercial paper towels, and plywood.
 
Recently tied with GP’s 13% of the US paper products market is WestRock, based in Norcross, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. WestRock was formed by the 2015 merger of two other large paper companies, RockTenn and MeadWestvaco, two companies that, as their names suggest, were also formed by mergers. The company specializes in corrugated packaging, including pizza boxes, as well as paper for labels, leaflets, and inserts.
 
6252 The Roanoke Rapids Paper Mill in North Carolina is one of more than a dozen mills in the USA owned by WestRock. CLUI photo
Though things change rapidly in the paper industry, with companies suddenly forming and disappearing by mergers and acquisitions, the other current major players, beyond the top three, all have 5% or less of the market in the US. These include two Montreal-based companies, Domtar and Resolute, both of which make a diverse array of paper products, from office paper to personal products, at large plants in the Southeast and Upper Midwest; Graphic Packaging International, based in Atlanta, specializing in food packaging, with a plant in Battle Creek, Michigan (home of Kellogg’s), and four large paper mills in the Southeast; Procter & Gamble, which has no pulp operations, but makes lots of paper consumer products all over the nation and the world; Sappi (whose name was derived from South African Pulp and Paper Industries), which is based in Johannesburg and operates two large paper mills in Maine, and one in Minnesota;  the Packaging Corporation of America, based in Illinois, which bought Boise Cascade’s paper division in 2013 and operates two white paper mills and six containerboard mills; and hundreds of other companies, with anywhere from a dozen mills, to one. 
 
The legacy of paper is left on the ground in many ways. First, in the transformation of forests into managed, replanted harvest-scapes. Second, in the industry’s massive physical and social footprint. Hundreds of operating and closed mills and leveled mill sites remain, next to dams, on rivers in the middle of small towns across the country, many of which formed to house the workers of the mill. Towns whose populace were immune to the distinct stench of pulp, so apparent to visitors. Towns that were dedicated and proud of their mill, despite the hazards of toxic dioxin emissions and chlorine bleaching agents, wastewater draining into rivers, and water treatment ponds leaching into groundwater. Third, in the mountainous landfills across the land, full of single-use paper products suspended in anaerobic entombment, that, through a century of their existence as a medium, slipped past insufficient efforts to divert them from the waste stream. 
 
And, lastly, in all the archives and libraries of the world, where paper’s highest and best use, as information storage medium, remains effective for the foreseeable future, possibly outlasting its digital counterparts. ♦ 
 
6253 The Ashdown Paper Mill in Arkansas is operated by Domtar, a Canadian manufacturer and marketer of uncoated free-sheet paper (of the type generally used as office paper), and a supplier of pulp for the paper industry. Google Earth image