Straw to paper idea survives

Actor Woody Harrelson is still the celebrity face and a shareholder behind Prairie Paper, but the company has undergone a change of leadership and a shift in business plan.  |  Prairie Paper photo

Woody Harrelson’s dream of turning western Canadian straw into paper is still a possibility.

The Hollywood actor and former star of Cheers has been the primary investor in a company called Prairie Paper Inc. for more than six years.

Since 2010, Harrelson and his partners, including former Manitoba Finance Minister Clayton Manness, have been touting a plan to build a $500 million to $1 billion paper mill on the Prairies that would use wheat straw as a feedstock.

The plan never proceeded, and the company is now based in Vancouver. It manufactures paper from straw in India and sells it at Staples stores in the United States under the brand Step Forward Paper.

The paper, which is made from 80 percent wheat straw and 20 percent tree fibre certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, was once available in Canada, but that’s no longer the case.

“We’ve been priced out of the Canadian market because we buy in U.S. dollars,” said Jeff Calvert, chief executive officer of Prairie Paper.

“When we first started … the (Canadian) dollar was at parity.”

Jeff Golfman, a Winnipeg resident and founder of Prairie Paper, is no longer part of the company.

“(He) spent much of 2015 suing the rest of us: me, Clayton, Woody,” Calvert said.

“We resolved that … (and) bought Golfman’s stake out.”

Manness is still involved, serving as board chair.

With those difficulties now in the past, the goal is to increase sales of straw-based paper in the U.S. and investigate the potential for a straw pulp mill on the Prairies to supply existing paper mills.

“Once we start getting profitable on that business, we’re going to be turning funds back into feasibility work for a wheat straw pulp mill somewhere on the Prairies,” Calvert said.

“I’m hoping to complete a feasibility study in the next 18 months…. At that point, we’ll be well positioned to raise the equity we need, to take the next steps.”

Harrelson, known for his environmental advocacy, has helped promote Step Forward Paper in the U.S. market. Magazines such as Fortune, Time and Forbes have published pieces on Harrelson and making paper from straw.

“Paper shouldn’t come from forests, it always should have come from farmers…. Now it’s back to the farmer,” Harrelson says on the company’s website.

“Half of all the forests cut down are cut for paper products…. If you can affect a change in this area, it really can make an enormous difference.”

The company’s website also says that a prospective plant would likely be built in Manitoba.

“(The) engineering and science team does believe that the southwestern region of Manitoba will be most optimal. However, prior to selecting a site, we need to prove market demand for our straw-based (paper) that we are selling at Staples.”

Calvert, who worked for many years in the paper industry and forest protection, said making paper from wheat straw is commonplace in India and China.

Straw could also be used to make paper in North America, but existing players in the industry have a vested interest in trees.

“The technology for turning wheat straw into paper is well developed… but we don’t do it… because our paper companies are focused on extracting value from timber,” he said.

“We’re dedicated to extracting value from wheat straw.”

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