Straw is a byproduct of wheat farming. Every year, after the wheat harvest, thousands of acres of straw are either burned off or plowed under. Now, that straw is being reclaimed for paper pulp.
One glance at the golden fields of grain in Eastern Washington, and it's clear you're in one of the nation's breadbaskets. Known as the Palouse, the region's wheat harvest, the largest in North America, is its claim to fame. Some area farmers even claim (incorrectly) that Ritz Crackers are named after the local city of Ritzville. But a new local company, Columbia Pulp, based in Dayton, WA, is making sure this pastoral landscape is known for more than its amber waves of grain. As the first new pulp mill in the U.S. in decades, it has pioneered the sustainable Phoenix Process, developed by University ofWashington researchers Bill McKean and Mark Lewis, which extracts pulp, and eventually paper-from humble wheat straw.
The new process is more environmentally friendly than comparable methods, requiring 25 percent less water and 70 percent less energy. It also eliminates the need for the annual "fall burns" farmers set to clear straw from their fields, when four to five million acres are set ablaze, creating acrid smoke and carbon emissions. By finding a use for something with no previous monetary value, Columbia Pulp has created an environmental and economic boost for this part of the country. Columbia Pulp aims to be the region's signature employer-many starting jobs are in the $20-an-hour range-and estimates it'll contribute $70 million annually once it's fully operational.
Columbia Pulp contracts with farmers across the region, spending $13 million annually on 1,000-pound bales of straw. At facilities in Dayton and Pomeroy, WA, Columbia Pulp workers turn the straw into pulp using heat, water, and chemicals, such as peroxjde, which isolate the fibers. But unlike wood, straw doesn't need to be pressurized, saving vast amounts of energy.
The end result are paper products with a slight yellow hue, like the straw itself, which can be turned into numerous specialty products, as well as tissue, molded products, packaging, and label backing. There's plenty of room for growth.according to Columbia Pulp CEO John Begley. The nation boasts 10 times as much biomass from farming operations, like straw, than it does from trees.
Expanding the Phoenix Process means less trees felled for paper, fewer damaging fires in Eastern Washington, and more economic regeneration in rural communities. It's a sustainable product, which eases environmental impact and, you might say, spins straw into gold.