Four sheets of bright white office paper lay on conference room table at NORPAC's Longview mill, each printed with the same colorful images of tulips and trees. As a sales manager practices his pitch, he reaches to flip over the sheets. Toner bleeds through the backsides of all them, except for one: NORPAC’s new “Natural Choice Paper.”
The new office paper, billed as environmentally friendly, is North Pacific Paper Co.'s latest bid to enhance the profitability of its Longview mill and safeguard the 400 jobs it brings to the local economy.
Rolls of the white paper will be made in Longview, then shipped to the Midwest to be cut into smaller sheets and bundled into reams. Although NORPAC isn't yet prepared to hire new employees, “this will help to maintain jobs,” said Craig Anneberg, NORPAC mill manager. Eventually, he hopes the whole process can be transferred to Longview, which would require an infusion of capital and steady sales.
The NORPAC mill, a joint venture between Weyerhaeuser Corp. and the Nippon Paper Group Inc. of Japan, was built in 1979 to serve the newspaper industry. NORPAC and other newsprint mills have seen sales decline as the newspaper industry has contracted over the last two decades. North American newsprint demand in 2013 was only 35 percent of its level in 2000, according to the Canadian government.
As demand for newsprint decreases, NORPAC’s venture into office paper is a necessary step, Anneberg said. Newsprint accounts for only 50 percent of NORPAC's current product mix. Over the last decade, the book market has accounted for a growing portion of the company's paper production. The mill serves publishers such as Scholastic, Random House, Penguin and Hachette, but the book market also has slowed.
“All the grades (of paper) that the mill has produced are in decline, so if they’re falling year by year and there’s no sign that there’s a future, then going into copy grade … is a great opportunity,” said Kevin Mason, paper analyst with ERA Forest Products Research.
“Copy paper is declining about 4 to 5 percent a year, but it’s still a big market,” he added. And within that market, sales of super bright papers, such as the one NORPAC is producing, have actually risen this year, Mason said.
NORPAC’s copy paper is made from a chlorine-free, mechanical process of grinding wood into pulp. That eliminates pollutants associated with chlorine-bleached paper. Company officials say that, after two years of product testing, they’ve reduced discoloration typical of other ground-wood papers, and they also found ways to prevent the paper from curling once it's been through office copiers. And they said there are environmental benefits to using ground-wood paper, which is bleached with hydrogen peroxide, instead of typical white office paper.
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“Chemical pulp gets rid of over half the wood, giving you a very bright outcome, but with the mechanical pulping processing, we’re able to produce twice the amount of paper from the same amount of tree,” said Ray Harrison, NORPAC's fiber line manager.
This "high-yield paper" is “a totally different product” than the fine paper previously produced by Weyerhaeuser, Harrison said. In 2003, Weyerhaeuser shut down its fine paper mill in Longview and, in 2006, sold the fine paper division to Domtar Corp. in a $3.3 billion deal.
Analysts say NORPAC could be entering the office paper market at a good time. Major paper manufacturers and the United Steelworkers union are pushing the federal government to impose duties on imports of office paper from China, Indonesia, Brazil, Portugal and Australia that they claim are priced unfairly, reports The Wall Street Journal. The U.S. International Trade Commission is expected to announce some duties in the summer.
“If imports get blocked from the market, that really opens up some great opportunities for NORPAC for them to move product into the market,” Mason said.
Anneberg, the NORPAC mill manager, said the company is indeed focusing on the domestic market, starting on the West Coast. He said that his team has been visiting businesses around the Longview area to pitch their paper and have “been getting positive feedback.”
At the offices of one prospective client, Anneberg said he asked the client to find a ream of paper on hand.
“They brought in reams from Staples, and it’s all made in China,” he said, while throwing his hands in the air. Eventually, he hopes that those reams will read “made in the U.S.A.” instead.