The Great American Cardboard Comeback

COMBINED LOCKS, Wis. — As he watched the No. 7 paper machine hiss and hum for what he thought was the last time, Rick Strick felt a lump well in his throat.

It was Sept. 21, 2017, and the paper mill that had employed Mr. Strick, his father and his grandfather was shutting down after 128 years. Demand for the glossy white paper that the mill produced for brochures was plummeting as advertising continued its flight to the internet.

The village of Combined Locks, Wis., founded when the mill opened in 1889, braced for the loss of its largest employer and feared that the community would be left with a hulking industrial wasteland, just like the other failed paper mills dotting the state. And for the first time since high school, Mr. Strick, who was then 58, started looking for a new job.

Then something unexpected happened: Amazon and China, two forces that are often blamed for destroying American employment in retail and manufacturing, helped Mr. Strick get his job back.

“No one is shocked when a paper mill closes anymore,” said Kyle Putzstuck, the president of Midwest Paper Group, which bought the Combined Locks mill soon after it was shuttered. “The shocking thing is when one reopens.”

The reason for the revival has to do with the millions of packages that Amazon and other online retailers ship around the world — specifically, the humble cardboard used to construct them. Over the past five years, e-commerce has fueled demand for billions more square feet of cardboard.

An industry that has struggled mightily during the digital age has a rare opportunity for growth. Since reopening, the mill in Combined Locks has switched most production from white paper to brown, installed equipment that can crush used cardboard to make new paper, and hired back about half of the 600 workers laid off during the shutdown.

The smooth brown paper they produce goes to cardboard-making vendors, who sell it in turn to Amazon and other retailers, who ship them to your doorstep.

“Brown is the future,” Mr. Strick said one morning this winter at the mill, where he had resumed his job as a maintenance supervisor.

Brown paper sales slowed following the Christmas e-commerce rush, but industry analysts say the conditions are still ripe for long-term growth. That’s where China comes in. Until early last year, much of the used cardboard consumed in the United States was being shipped to China, where it was recycled into new boxes.

Then, in January 2018, China stopped accepting most used cardboard imports. The material was mixed with so much trash and food contamination that it was causing serious environmental issues.

The policy change has disrupted residential recycling programs across the United States, forcing some communities to bury or burn materials they previously recycled. But for American paper companies that make new cardboard out of used boxes, China’s clampdown has been a boon. It has created a glut of cardboard scrap that is allowing American mills to obtain their most vital raw material at 70 percent less than it cost a year ago.

In Combined Locks, paper drives not only the local economy, but the mill’s identity. Its workers almost never say they are “manufacturing” or “producing” paper. They say they are “making” paper, reflecting how the process is still thought of as a craft with a history that dates back to China in 105 A.D.

A few miles down the Fox River, in the city of Appleton, sits the Paper Discovery Center museum and the Paper International Hall of Fame. Located in a former mill, the modest shrine honors those whose “accomplishments have truly revolutionized civilization.” Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, has a plaque on the wall. So does Wang Zhen, creator of the world’s first mass-produced book in 14th-century China.

Wisconsin has contributed its share of greats to the pantheon of paper. Morris Kuchenbecker, a retired package design engineer from the city of Neenah, patented a series of frozen-food cartons. Ernst Mahler, a chemist, invented the technology that makes tissues soft.

The region’s paper history dates to the years following the Civil War, when mills sprung up on along the Fox River to feed the industrializing nation’s demand for reading and writing material and disposable towels. “It was like the Silicon Valley of its time,” said Dan Clarahan, a board member of the Paper Discovery Center. One owner’s home was the first in the nation illuminated by Thomas Edison’s light bulbs.

You can still see remnants of paper’s glory years. Stately Victorian homes line many Appleton neighborhoods. The adjoining village of Kimberly is named after one of the founders of Kimberly-Clark, the maker of Kleenex and Huggies.

Wisconsin remains one of the nation’s largest paper producers, and much of it is still made in giant mills along the Fox. Today, huge conglomerates like Georgia Pacific, along with a handful of smaller companies, produce paper in the Fox River Valley area. But the industry has been contracting for decades, and it is not only because of the internet. Pricing pressure from giant retailers depressed the profit margins on brand-name paper towels, tissues and toilet paper.

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