Grade-school classroom lessons informed many of us of how ancient Egyptians recorded events of the day on the sliced-up stems of the papyrus plant, which at that time flourished in the Nile River wetlands.
Techniques developed in the ensuing millennia have evolved into wood pulp as a favored source for paper, but now an intriguing project just down the road from the Yakima Valley signals a return to plant-based paper production, with a product that is so plentiful in agricultural Central and Eastern Washington that it poses a bit of a nuisance.
In the wheat country of Columbia County northeast of Walla Walla, construction is expected to start in September on a pulp mill that will use new technology to pull cellulose out of straw left from wheat and alfalfa harvests. The Columbia Pulp mill, on the Snake River near Lyons Ferry Bridge, will separate the cellulose from the straw; from there, the company will sell the pulp in bales to other companies that manufacture items such as paper towels and tissues.
The mill will try new technology that promises to reduce energy use and spare workers, neighbors and passers-by the sulphurous smell of pulp mills. It may also provide a market for what is now a waste product from wheat and alfalfa production; after harvest, farmers must choose between burning the stubble, plowing it under or planting anew amid the leftover straw.
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At a cost of $184 million, the mill is scheduled to begin operation in late 2018 and provide about 90 jobs at the site, on 449 acres of land that was purchased from a longtime family farming operation. The plant itself will take up about 40 acres. Farmers from an area within 75 miles of the site will provide the straw; the mill is expected to buy about 240,000 tons of straw a year.
Could such a plant eventually find a home in the Yakima Valley? Possibly, but it should be noted that the Columbia Pulp site carries a number of infrastructure amenities. While far from any populated areas, it is served by a state highway, railroad, natural gas line and the Snake River, which at that point is navigable by barge.
That said, this development bears watching. The plant, if successful, will bring manufacturing jobs to an area that doesn’t have many, provide a sustainable way of making paper products and offer a market for what now is essentially a waste product. That is an impressive list of by-products from an old idea — make that ancient idea — that is now new again.