The Great American Cardboard Comeback

COMBINED LOCKS, Wis. — As he watched the No. 7 paper machine hiss and hum for what he thought was the final time, Rick Strick felt a lump properly in his throat.

It was Sept. 21, 2017, and the paper mill that had employed Mr. Strick, his father and his grandfather was shutting down after 128 years. Demand for the shiny white paper that the mill produced for brochures was plummeting as promoting continued its flight to the web.

The village of Mixed Locks, Wis., based when the mill opened in 1889, braced for the lack of its largest employer and feared that the neighborhood can be left with a hulking industrial wasteland, similar to the opposite failed paper mills dotting the state. And for the primary time since highschool, Mr. Strick, who was then 58, began on the lookout for a brand new job.

Then one thing sudden occurred: Amazon and China, two forces which can be usually blamed for destroying American employment in retail and manufacturing, helped Mr. Stricokay get his job again.

“Nobody is shocked when a paper mill closes anymore,” stated Kyle Putzstuck, the president of Midwest Paper Group, which purchased the Mixed Locks mill quickly after it was shuttered. “The stunning factor is when one reopens.”

The rationale for the revival has to do with the tens of millions of packages that Amazon and different on-line retailers ship world wide — particularly, the standard cardboard used to assemble them. Over the previous 5 years, e-commerce has fueled demand for billions extra sq. toes of cardboard.

An trade that has struggled mightily throughout the digital age has a uncommon alternative for development. Since reopening, the mill in Mixed Locks has switched most manufacturing from white paper to brown, put in tools that may crush used cardboard to make new paper, and employed again about half of the 600 employees laid off throughout the shutdown.

The sleek brown paper they produce goes to cardboard-making distributors, who promote it in flip to Amazon and different retailers, who ship them to the doorstep.

“Brown is the longer term,” Mr. Strick stated one morning this winter on the mill, the place he had resumed his job as a upkeep supervisor.

Brown paper gross sales slowed following the Christmas e-commerce rush, however trade analysts say the situations are nonetheless ripe for long-term development. That’s the place China is available in. Till early final 12 months, a lot of the used cardboard consumed in the US was being shipped to China, the place it was recycled into new containers.

Then, in January 2018, China stopped accepting most used cardboard imports. The fabric was combined with a lot trash and meals contamination that it was inflicting severe environmental points.

The coverage change has disrupted residential recycling programs across the United States, forcing some communities to bury or burn materials they previously recycled. But for American paper companies that make new cardboard out of used boxes, China’s clampdown has been a boon. It has created a glut of cardboard scrap that is allowing American mills to obtain their most vital raw material at 70 percent less than it cost a year ago.

In Combined Locks, paper drives not only the local economy, but the mill’s identity. Its workers almost never say they are “manufacturing” or “producing” paper. They say they are “making” paper, reflecting how the process is still thought of as a craft with a history that dates back to China in 105 A.D.

A few miles down the Fox River, in the city of Appleton, sits the Paper Discovery Center museum and the Paper International Hall of Fame. Located in a former mill, the modest shrine honors those whose “accomplishments have truly revolutionized civilization.” Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, has a plaque on the wall. So does Wang Zhen, creator of the world’s first mass-produced book in 14th-century China.

Wisconsin has contributed its share of greats to the pantheon of paper. Morris Kuchenbecker, a retired package design engineer from the city of Neenah, patented a series of frozen-food cartons. Ernst Mahler, a chemist, invented the technology that makes tissues soft.

The region’s paper history dates to the years following the Civil War, when mills sprung up on along the Fox River to feed the industrializing nation’s demand for reading and writing material and disposable towels. “It was like the Silicon Valley of its time,” said Dan Clarahan, a board member of the Paper Discovery Center. One owner’s home was the first in the nation illuminated by Thomas Edison’s light bulbs.

You can still see remnants of paper’s glory years. Stately Victorian homes line many Appleton neighborhoods. The adjoining village of Kimberly is named after one of the founders of Kimberly-Clark, the maker of Kleenex and Huggies.

Wisconsin remains one of the nation’s largest paper producers, and much of it is still made in giant mills along the Fox. Today, huge conglomerates like Georgia Pacific, along with a handful of smaller companies, produce paper in the Fox River Valley area. But the industry has been contracting for decades, and it is not only because of the internet. Pricing pressure from giant retailers depressed the profit margins on brand-name paper towels, tissues and toilet paper.

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