Pulp Nonfiction: How a Small Plant Makes Sustainability Profitable

Columbia Pulp LLC is commercializing an innovative way to turn waste plant material into high-quality pulp and combatting air pollution in the process
Nov 30, 2017 4:00 PM ET
Palouse Country, eastern Washington: TransCanada's GTN System traverses one of the most prolific wheat-growing regions in the world. GTN provides the energy Columbia Pulp uses to turn waste wheat straw into commercial paper pulp.

Pulp nonfiction: How a small plant makes sustainability profitable

When you can turn a problem into a product, you have the seeds of a profitable venture.

Columbia Pulp LLC, headquartered in Dayton, Washington, is commercializing an innovative but proven way to turn waste plant material into high-quality pulp that can be used to make consumer paper and packaging products – combatting air pollution in the process.

Instead of the usual wood chips, Columbia Pulp's new facility in rural Columbia County will use waste wheat straw. TransCanada's Gas Transmission Northwest (GTN) pipeline is supplying the natural gas to fuel the new enterprise.

If there's one thing eastern Washington has lots of, it's wheat straw.

"We are in the heart of the Palouse, one of the densest wheat-growing places on earth," said Larry Tantalo, Columbia Pulp project manager and engineer. "This is a good year for the Palouse. Some farmers are getting 150 bushels an acre" compared to 2016's average of just over 70 bushels an acre in Washington State. A bushel of wheat represents about 60 pounds.

While that's good news, it also increases the farmer's perennial problem: What to do with the tons of wheat straw left after harvest?

A sustainable solution

"Farmers in eastern Washington pay millions of dollars each year for the right to burn most of that straw," said Tantalo. "That burning generates thousands of tons of greenhouse gas emissions. If we use the waste straw to make pulp, we are reducing the amount of ash, particulates and carbon gases put in the atmosphere each year by about 18,000 tons—at this one facility."

That's just the beginning of the good news on sustainability.

The pulping process licensed to Columbia Pulp uses less chemicals, energy and water than conventional methods. And even the leftovers from the pulping process—sugars and a woody substance called lignin—can be sold and re-used. The amount of straw the plant will use annually will replace approximately 280,000 tons of wood chips, a boost to forest sustainability.

The recently commissioned plant will produce 140,000 tons per year of high-quality pulp.

Oh, and about Dayton.

"Columbia County is one of the poorest counties in Washington, and it has the highest unemployment," said Tantalo. "The county has 6,000 residents and 1,800 jobs. We're going to bring in 130 more good-paying jobs. That matters to folks around here."

And the neighbors won't have to worry about the rotten-egg smell typically associated with sulfur-based wood pulping. Columbia Pulp's process doesn't use sulfur.

"This is really where we want to be in terms of supporting sustainability and projecting our values about innovation and protecting the environment," said Jay Story, the GTN customer representative who realized Columbia Pulp's potential and turned it into a customer. "Plus it's just such a cool idea."

Tantalo is particularly proud of his company's ability to turn problem waste into profitable product while significantly reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions—all on a strictly commercial basis.

"We are commercially viable without any subsidies. We will to stand toe-to-toe with the wood pulp industry and compete on the basis of product price and quality," said Tantalo. "This is just the beginning. We have plans to duplicate what we've done here."

Columbia Pulp by the numbers

Columbia Pulp LLC will dramatically reduce particulate and greenhouse emissions by turning waste wheat straw into pulp.

  • 127,000: Number of acres of agricultural residue burning in Eastern Washington alone in 2014
  • 45,000: Approximate number of tons of ash, particulates, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide this burning puts into the atmosphere each year
  • 18,000: Converting 250,000 tons of waste straw into pulp each year will keep 18,000 tons of pollutants and greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere

Source: Columbia Pulp LLC