WEST LINN, OR (KPTV) – A paper mill in West Linn is celebrating the success of what they call a “revolutionary” new way of making paper, but their path to this moment was plenty uncertain.
The facility was shuttered almost two years ago and when it did, nearly 250 people lost their jobs.
Now, the lights are on, steam billows from the smokestack, the mill hums again, and what’s happening inside is an entirely new way of doing things – something they say isn’t happening anywhere else in the country at this scale.
“This is revolutionary. This is a big deal,” said facilities manager John Otnes.
The paper mill in West Linn sat dormant for nearly two years. By all accounts, the 130-year-old plant stood as a relic of a bygone era.
“It’s exciting to be able to one, revitalize a site that a lot of people had given up on, have my job back with the guys I’ve worked with for many years,” said backtender Todd Oakes.
In August, the plant came alive again, this time as Willamette Falls Paper Company, to create the same product just a little differently. And this week, there was a breakthrough.
“Right now, we just ran our first successful trials. We’ll be running another trial that I hope will be just as successful or more next week. We’re getting very close to provide product specifications,” said Phil Harding, director of technology and sustainability.
So, they’re back to making paper again, but this time with a new material.
“It’s neat to be taking an agricultural waste product and beginning to turn that into jobs for people… something that previously was thrown away or piled up and burned,” said Oakes.
The paper is made out of leftover wheat straw sourced from farms in eastern Washington and manufactured in West Linn.
It’s a process they say could revolutionize the way paper is made.
“It’s renewable, it’s sustainable. It’s taking a waste product, a waste stream, out and turning it into something useful, and it’s done in a way, I believe wheat straw is made about 68 percent more efficiently than is wood fiber,” said Otnes.
And the best part for them?
“Out of the first one hundred employees hired, 96 were returnees which is incredible,” said Harding.
“This sounds really corny, but these people are like family to us,” said Otnes.
Oakes said, “We’re going to prove to industry in general that it can be done. We stand a very good chance of being a catalyst that changes peoples’ expectation of what is waste and what’s viable.”
Most farms are simply burning their excess wheat straw right now, according to the company.
With the nation’s top wheat-producing county – the Palouse region of eastern Washington – being just a few hundred miles up the road, they say they’ll have plenty of material to work with.
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