In late April, the American Forest & Paper Association, Washington, reported that U.S. paper mills set record-high levels of tissue production this spring, manufacturing about 700,000 tons in March alone.
Much of the increased production is a direct result of unprecedented demand created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Retail demand for tissue products increased as many U.S. households stocked up on toilet paper and paper towels throughout the spring.
Tissue mills, including those operated by Georgia-Pacific (GP), have had to respond to the increased demand for their products during the COVID-19 pandemic. GP is an Atlanta-based maker of tissue, pulp, packaging and building products.
“We’re seeing a significant movement of demand to the retail market as the closure of schools, office buildings and restaurants has changed where people spend their time,” says John Mulcahy, vice president of sustainability at GP, who has focused on the company’s sustainability strategy for the past eight years. “This has created a dramatic increase in demand on the retail side,” he adds. “These hygienic products are essential to our society, and we’re working to do everything we can to help ensure the health and safety of our manufacturing supply chain and employees.”
Since mid-March, GP also has fielded more than 100 media inquiries from a variety of outlets. Eric Abercrombie, senior manager of public affairs and communications at GP, says the company has been communicating continually with media outlets and customers to explain the supply-and-demand situations affecting tissue markets. In the past two months, GP responded to concerned customers on social media, created an infographic on how much toilet paper people really need and established a landing page on its website with COVID-19-related information to educate employees and members of the media.
“We have had three goals: be transparent, educate and correct misinformation and be authentic,” Abercrombie says.
Mulcahy also wrote an article in mid-March for GP’s website in response to consumers who were concerned that the increase in toilet paper manufacturing was bad for the environment.
“Many people are justifiably concerned about our world’s natural resources and the use of trees to manufacture single-use products, like toilet paper,” he writes in the article, adding that toilet paper manufacturing doesn’t negatively affect the environment as consumers might assume it does.
“We’re 100 percent committed to being good stewards of the environment, which includes being efficient with resources and reducing our waste,” he writes of GP’s sustainability practices. “Some of our efforts include generating half of our energy needs from renewable resources, recycling over 2 million tons of recovered paper a year and using industry-leading practices to ensure that our fiber comes from responsible sources.”
Rooted in fiber recovery
GP has a history of using recovered paper in some form for the past 90 years. The company has traditionally used recovered paper in its packaging and away-from-home tissue products.
A few acquisitions it has made over the years have shaped GP into the business it is today, particularly in its recycling division. The company’s Green Bay, Wisconsin, facility opened in 1919 as part of Fort Howard Paper Co. That company merged with James River Corp. in 1997 to form Fort James Corp., which was acquired by GP in 2000. Mulcahy says the company started to process local wastepaper to make recycled tissue when it was known as Fort Howard Paper Co. in the 1930s.
“There wasn’t a significant focus on recycling until the shortages that emerged during World War II,” he says. “Producing recycled tissue allowed Fort Howard to make a profit by utilizing cheap and abundant raw material that would have otherwise gone to the landfill.”
Georgia-Pacific Recycling (GP Recycling), the company’s recycling division, has existed for a while, as well. Marc Forman, president of GP Recycling, says the recycling division’s roots date back to the mid-1960s when it was known as Harmon Associates. Fort Howard Co. purchased that business in 1980, and it eventually became part of GP in 2000.
The recycling division operates five facilities: two in New Jersey, one in Pennsylvania, one in Georgia and one in Tennessee. Forman says about 200 people work for and provide support to GP Recycling, and the division has more than 3,000 suppliers that provide paper, plastic and metals for consumers of recyclables.
As with many recycling businesses, Forman says GP Recycling has had to adapt to market realities throughout its history.
“When I think back to the major structural changes of the business, I think of the major shift we made in the mid-2000s toward serving offshore customers via our export trading capability,” he says. “Obviously with all the changes in the recent years in China, that business continues to change and adapt.”
The business unit also had a branding change in 2019 from GP Harmon Recycling to Georgia-Pacific Recycling.
“While the Harmon name is well-known in the marketplace, more formally adopting the Georgia-Pacific name reflects that we are committed to being a preferred partner in the recyclable commodity industry,” Forman says.
Today, GP Recycling purchases about 6 million tons of recovered paper annually. About 2 million tons go to GP’s mills, where they are made into tissue, towel products, office paper, containerboard and corrugated boxes.
Experiments in innovation
GP aims to advance its sustainability efforts in all areas of its business, including its recycling division. Lately, Mulcahy says the company has been investing in its manufacturing facilities to increase its ability to economically consume mixed paper.
“The recycling division is very familiar with adapting to rapidly changing market conditions and swings in supply and demand.” – Marc Forman, president, Georgia-Pacific Recycling
“We have always looked at the available streams of recovered paper and looked for innovations that would allow the yielded cost of fiber to be advantaged compared with alternatives,” he says. “Mixed paper tends to have higher levels of contamination and includes coatings, such as plastic, that can be harder to process. As export markets, including China, reduced their purchases of mixed paper, we saw an opportunity to utilize this available supply.”
As a result, he says the company has invested in and retooled systems at its mills in Green Bay and Muskogee, Oklahoma, to be able to consume mixed paper.
In addition, GP has been testing its Juno Technology since 2013. The process takes solid waste from select commercial locations—such as office buildings, airports, schools and fast-food restaurants—and processes and sanitizes the material. Some of that material is then fed into the papermaking process, with the old corrugated containers being recycled into products such as corrugated boxes, and other recyclables being supplied into their respective markets.
Mulcahy says GP is planning to commercialize this process by next year. “After operating a pilot unit for several years, the first Juno commercial installation is under construction adjacent to Georgia-Pacific’s Toledo, Oregon, containerboard mill,” he says. “The unit is expected to start up in mid-2021 and has the potential to divert up to 90 percent of the commercial waste processed that otherwise would have gone to landfills or incinerators.”
This year, GP and its GP Recycling division have been adapting quickly to market conditions and concerns arising from the COVID-19 outbreak.
GP has been stepping up on safety protocols at its facilities to protect its workers during the pandemic and has been providing answers to COVID-19-related questions on its website.
This spring, the company reported that some of its employees or contractors had tested positive for COVID-19. GP responded by following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health authorities, such as notifying individuals who were in close contact with those who had been infected and asking them to self-quarantine, as well as disinfecting any areas where infected individuals worked.
Some of GP’s divisions and brands also are finding ways to give back to causes tied to the pandemic. The company’s Angel Soft brand pledged up to $2 million to the #GiveTogetherNow initiative to provide relief for families affected by COVID-19.
GP has been figuring out solutions to supply chain challenges that have occurred because of the pandemic. Mulcahy says it has been a little more challenging to secure recycled paper—in particular sorted office paper (SOP). He says the company has had to turn to sustainably sourced virgin pulp instead to meet some of its needs.
“The closure of schools and office buildings has impacted the supply of sorted office paper,” Mulcahy says. “Our mills have the ability to substitute sustainably sourced virgin pulp and is doing so as fiber availability requires. As a result, we have contacted our customers and suspended our recycling content claims on certain products until such time that recovered fiber markets allow us to put them back in place.”
As generation of SOP rebounds, he says the company expects to participate in that market again because producing recycled tissue products and packaging is an important part of GP’s business model.
“The recycling division is very familiar with adapting to rapidly changing market conditions and swings in supply and demand,” Forman adds. “Having said that, the types of swings we are seeing today are unprecedented. However, the way we create value—by bringing buyers and sellers together and offering them products and services that are better than their alternatives—has not changed.”
“These are certainly unprecedented times,” Mulcahy says. “We’re meeting daily to reassess the situation and make adjustments to our plans as necessary.”