WEDC officials and other state leaders visited three paper plants and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point on Aug. 5 to draw attention to the release of a new report showing the importance of the paper industry to the state’s economy.
Drawing on national industry data, the study by the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology (WIST) at UW-Stevens Point found Wisconsin ranks first in the nation in the number of paper mills, the number of industry employees and the value of products sold. Read the full report on the economic contribution of Wisconsin’s paper industry.
According to the study, Wisconsin’s pulp, paper and converting industries directly generated $18.2 billion in economic output and employed more than 30,000 workers in 2018. The paper industry’s total contributions to Wisconsin’s economy—including direct, indirect and induced benefits—came to more than $28.8 billion and more than 95,000 jobs.
The study also found that 41 of the state’s 72 counties are home to at least one paper manufacturing business, whether that is a mill or a converter. In some counties, paper manufacturing represents more than 20% of local manufacturing activity.
“The paper industry continues to play a key role in Wisconsin’s manufacturing economy,” said Governor Tony Evers. “The WIST report provides a prime example of how Wisconsin businesses are incorporating innovation and sustainability to maintain our role as a national and global leader.”
Scott Suder, president of the Wisconsin Paper Council, thanked WEDC for sponsoring the report.
“We are pleased to have been able to partner with WEDC and WIST on this important economic survey project,” said Suder. “This economic survey is an important tool that we can utilize to highlight the strength and sustainability of our industry to regulators, thought leaders and the public. We want to thank WEDC and WIST for all of their efforts to highlight the importance of the papermaking industry to our state and nation.”
State leaders began their visits at ND Paper’s Biron Division, where company officials discussed details of their previously announced $189 million strategic investment to add recycled pulping capacity and convert one of the facility’s two paper machines from lightweight coated papers to containerboard grades.
“We are extremely pleased to contribute to the enduring legacy of pulp and papermaking in the state of Wisconsin,” said Group Deputy Chairman and CEO Ken Liu. “Our strategic investments establish the Biron Division as a leading North American producer of recycled pulp, packaging grades, and printing and writing papers. Furthermore, by utilizing recovered paper as a primary raw material, it serves as a great example of sustainability in our industry.”
The next stop was UW-Stevens Point, where WIST works with paper manufacturers and converters on projects ranging from new product development to training and testing services. WIST is part of the College of Natural Resources, which includes programs in paper science and chemical engineering.
“These programs provide students in the paper science and chemical engineering majors with high-impact professional experiences and are an important part of UW-Stevens Point’s mission to be relevant and responsive to industry,” said Christine Thomas, dean of the College of Natural Resources at UW-Stevens Point.
The leaders also visited the renovated North America headquarters of Ahlstrom-Munksjö, where company officials described the important role specialty paper products play around the world. (The Finnish company purchased the former Expera Specialty Solutions in 2018.)
“We are proud to be a part of Wisconsin’s rich papermaking history for almost 140 years,” said Addie Teeters, head of marketing and communications for Ahlstrom-Munksjö’s North American facilities. “The innovation our industry is seeing is outstanding. We make smart things out of fiber—and sustainability and innovation are core to the products we are making, from food packaging to building and construction materials for customers around the globe.”
The visits concluded at Green Bay Packaging in Green Bay, where construction is under way on a new $500 million mill.
“Green Bay Packaging is proud to be part of Wisconsin’s papermaking past, present and exciting future,” said Matt Szymanski, vice president of mill operations. “Our company’s investment at our Green Bay mill location will incorporate the latest papermaking technology and process design, focusing on employee safety and engagement, environmental stewardship, and industry-leading product quality.”
Mark R. Hogan, secretary and CEO of WEDC at the time, noted that in addition to sponsoring the WIST study, WEDC has provided financial assistance to all three of the paper companies highlighted today.
“These companies are national and global leaders in the truest sense,” Hogan said. “They are investing in Wisconsin, investing in their communities and investing in the future. WEDC is pleased to support their efforts.”
Other key findings of the report include:
- Although it is often referred to as “the paper industry” or sometimes “pulp and paper,” the industry includes both commodity products such as brown paper and more specialized products.
- A total of 24 paper companies operate mills at 34 locations in Wisconsin. Integrated mills, such as ND Paper in Biron, produce both pulp and paper; others produce only one or the other. Ahlstrom-Munksjö’s Rhinelander mill, for example, purchases fiber to produce specialty papers. Sustana, in DePere, makes pulp from recycled fiber and sells the pulp to other companies.
- At least 204 converters operate facilities in the state. Converters take paper produced at a mill and change it to a finished product. This diverse range of products includes art paper, food packaging, tissues and towels, medical and industrial papers, printing and writing papers and more.
- After a period of consolidation and mill closures driven by declining paper demand, industry leaders say they are optimistic about the future. Growing consumer concerns about the use of plastic, from straws to single-use bags to food packaging, is creating new opportunities for paper-based materials.
- The growth of e-commerce, or the “Amazon effect,” has also created opportunities for the industry by increasing demand for shipment packaging such as boxes.
- Finding and retaining skilled workers is a major concern. With the median worker’s age at 47.8 years, many in the industry are bracing for a “silver tsunami” of retirements within the next five to ten years. Leaders say they are working to promote job opportunities in the industry, especially for younger workers with math, communication and problem-solving skills. Leaders are also looking to hire workers in the skilled trades, such as electricians and pipefitters.
- Other major concerns involve transportation, including a labor shortage in the trucking industry; aging infrastructure within the industry, which is prompting many companies to invest in new equipment; fiber availability; and environmental regulations.
“Overall, there is a strong sense of optimism in the industry,” the report concludes. “Industry leaders believe the worst storms have been weathered by the pulp, paper and converting industries, and prospects are better today than they were five years ago.”