Straw mill concept remains alive

For years, investors have flirted with the idea of building a wheat-straw pulp mill in Western Canada.

Those plans and good intentions didn’t pan out, possibly because of the huge capital cost of building a mill.

The idea, however, isn’t dead.

A mill could be built in the next five years, or so, because wheat-straw pulp mills are being constructed in Washington state and Germany.

There’s a realistic chance the next one could be built in Canada because the pulp industry is shifting its attention and investment dollars toward wheat straw.

“I would expect that we’ll see no less than a dozen (new mills) in the next 10 years — in Europe, North America, Asia and South America,” said Darby Kreitz, chief executive officer of Allnorth, a British Columbia company carrying out the engineering work on the wheat-straw pulp mills in Germany and Washington state.

“We believe there will be something (built) in Saskatchewan, in particular.”

Columbia Pulp, an American firm, is building a wheat-straw pulp mill in eastern Washington, near the town of Pomeroy. A drone video posted on the company’s website indicates the plant is nearly complete and should begin operations this summer.

“(It will be) North America’s first tree-free market pulp mill, using wheat farmers’ waste straw to create pulp for paper products as well as bio-polymers for a variety of industrial uses,” Columbia Pulp says on its website.

The mill’s technology, to convert wheat-straw into pulp, was developed by another U.S. firm — Sustainable Fiber Technologies.

Pulp from wheat straw can be used to make packaging, molded products such as plates and food containers, tissues and towels.

Sustainable Fiber and its technology, branded as the Phoenix Process, has made it more realistic to produce pulp from wheat straw. The company claims the capital cost of a wheat-straw mill is 30 percent of a conventional mill and the pulp production cost is 50 percent less.

That’s why investors are more excited today, than a decade ago, about the economics of wheat-straw pulp mills.

“That is part of the puzzle,” said Kreitz of Allnorth, which has offices in 16 locations across Canada and the United States, and more than 450 employees.

“The next part of the puzzle is there is a requirement for more pulp…. It’s a growing industry. Tissue use, globally, has increased,”

Another key for the future of wheat-straw pulp is government regulations around plastic. Canada, the United Kingdom and other jurisdictions are planning to ban single-use plastics. Those rules will create a void in the market. Food containers, cups and other products made from wheat straw could fill that void.

One attractive feature of wheat-straw pulp mills is that they generate no waste.

“In a typical pulp mill the waste stream is … burned inside of their boilers,” Kreitz said.

The process developed by Sustainable Fiber Technologies creates a “nutrient rich” co-product, which can be used as a fertilizer or livestock feed.

This isn’t the first time that the pulp and paper industry has touted a wheat-straw mill for the Prairies.

In the early 2010s a group of investors, including actor Woody Harrelson and former Manitoba finance minister Clayton Manness, were hoping to build a straw-based pulp mill in Manitoba.

The mill never materialized and the corporation, Prairie Paper Inc., dissolved earlier this year.

Kreitz wouldn’t comment on when a new group of investors will step up and build a wheat-straw pulp mill in Saskatchewan.

However, he’s hopeful it will happen — someday.

“Wheat straw mills are a natural complement to the existing sustainable wood pulp and paper industry,” he said in an Allnorth news release. “We look forward to the day that Allnorth plays a part in building wheat straw mills in Canada.”

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