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Haywood’s paper mill emerges as the blue-collar mainstay

fr evergreenThere’s good news in the marketplace for Evergreen Packaging paper mill in Canton.

Americans’ love affair with fancy coffee has led to new demand for the stiff, coated paperboard that the mill is known for.

Evergreen has become a market leader in the paperboard line used to make hot cups — and paper cups found at some of the nation’s leading coffee retailers are now being made right here in Haywood County.

And there’s more good news. Styrofoam is on the outs due its bad rap ecologically, creating even more demand for paper hot cups.

“Ours is recyclable and renewable. It gives us an environmental advantage,” said Dane Griswold, the Evergreen plant manager in Canton. Griswold shouted to be heard over the rumble of the turning axles inside the mill as he walked the length of the board paper machine. Slabs of paper blurred past him, like giant fan belts whizzing through a maze of drums more tangled than an M.C. Escher drawing, before eventually winding onto a massive roll at the end of the line where men in hard hats were waiting to dispatch them.

From here, the rolls go to the Waynesville sister facility, where the paper is coated, and then up the chain to more plants where they are cut, rolled, glued and molded into cups, cartons and trays.

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The Canton paper mill was historically known as the carton champion. Its thickcoated board paper was found in the orange juice and dairy aisles of grocery stores across America.

“We still make a lot of that,” Griswold said. A few hundred tons a day, in fact.

But carton demand has declined slowly over the decades as plastic screw-top bottles edge out the folding gable-top cartons. Meanwhile, the sky-rocketing demand for paper coffee cups has come on like a shot of adrenaline.

And it’s predicted to grow even more. McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts have announced they’re quitting Styrofoam. New York City has even banned Styrofoam.

“The paper industry has been gearing up for this move away from foam,” said James McLaren, a pulp and paper analyst with RISI, a data firm that monitors the global forest products industry.

The Canton mill now makes more paperboard for hot cups than it does cartons.

Another sector on the upward swing: food trays found in frozen dinners. More are now being made out of stiff coated paper instead of plastic. About 9 percent of the Canton mill’s board paper line now goes to frozen dinner trays.

Evergreen’s website bills its paperboard packaging as a sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative to both plastic and Styrofoam.

The “mix shift” as Griswold calls it — the ascension of the mill’s hot cup line to surpass the carton line — didn’t happen overnight. It’s come about slowly, and not without effort. Evergreen had to work at it, courting new markets and tightening up its game.

“I can’t be sloppy and have that kind of product. I have to be competitive,” Griswold said, holding a sleek white paper cup prototype in his hand.

Coffee cups are part of an intimate consumer experience. Coffee drinks — especially when you pamper yourself with the $5 variety — are usually nurtured and nursed, sipped and slurped. They have to feel smooth in the hand, void of imperfections, and slide easily in and out of cup holders.

“The large coffee retailers are a very demanding customer and rightfully so. You have to learn to meet those demands,” said Mark Hubbard, an Evergreen spokesperson with McGuireWoods Consulting firm in Raleigh.

And only the most high-quality board paper can keep the lip intact around the rim despite contact with liquids.

“You would not believe how difficult that little rolled rim is to make,” said Matt Claypool, director of environment, health and safety for Evergreen.


The white paper line

A proven player in the burgeoning hot cup market, the paper mill is likely in the best shape its been in over a decade when it comes to the board paper production.

But board paper accounts for only half of the paper mill’s operation. The other half is regular paper — the kind used for printer paper, office paper, photocopier paper, envelopes and junk mail.

“Junk mail? What are you calling junk mail?” Griswold joked. Touché, bring on the junk mail.

Unfortunately for the mill, paper use has plummeted in the American workplace, schools and halls of government. 

“It is secular decline. Demand is just withering up,” McLaren said.

Phone books are only being passed out on request, rather than dumped on doorsteps ubiquitously. The IRS printed fewer paper tax forms this year than ever. Even newspapers are collectively printing fewer copies as circulation declines, The Smoky Mountain News being an exception, however.

But there is a silver lining, McLaren said.

International Paper closed a massive mill in Alabama last year.

“That took a lot of capacity out of production,” McLaren said.

The overall drop in paper supply propped up the market for the rest of the mills still in production. But international competition is still a threat.

And the decline in paper use isn’t over yet.

“Eventually that decline in demand will catch up with capacity,” McLaren said.

You just hope your mill to be one of the last ones standing.


Not for sale

Rumors circulating last year that the mill was for sale sent shock waves through Canton. The rumor was real, according to industry experts, but it’s not for sale anymore.

“Evergreen was technically being put up for sale by Rank. But then they said they were going to keep Evergreen,” McLaren said.

The paper mill has been a mainstay of the economic and social landscape in Haywood County for a century.

The mill nearly closed in the 1990s, but the workers rallied to keep it open, partnering with a venture capitalist to form an employee-owned mill known as Blue Ridge Paper.

Workers boot-strapped the mill back to solvency, but the venture capitalists soon wanted out, and the mill was back on the market, this time bought up by New Zealand billionaire with major international interests in the wood products, pulp, paper and packaging industry. The holdings are collectively held under the name Rank Limited, with spin-off subsidiary lines, and even more subsidiaries under those.

The Canton mill is part of Ranks’ Evergreen line, which operates a host of paper mills, coating facilities and folding facilities — including one in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where Griswold was the plant manager before coming here.

So far, it’s worked to the mill’s advantage to be in Rank’s portfolio. It’s part of a vertically integrated food packaging company, the largest foodservice packaging company in the world, in fact. The single largest customer for Evergreen’s board paper is its own sister companies, which buy its paper, convert it into folded cartons, cups and trays, and sell it to the end user.

Griswold said people should feel good about the mill’s future in Haywood.

“We are profitable and competitive. We support investment in the community,” Griswold said.



By the numbers

• 870 tons: daily production volume of stiff board paper

• 800 tons: daily production volume of regular paper 

• 900 employees: on the payroll at the Canton mill

• 200 employees: on the payroll at the Waynesville mill

• $75,000: average mill salary including benefits

• $525 million: net market value of annual product

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