published Asheville-Citizen Times newspaper
Apr. 20, 2012
The Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times newspaper recently profiled Jackson Paper Manufacturing and its role as North Carolina’s largest producer of recycled paper.
Written by Dale Neal
“The Mountaineer” was installed in 1927 and still rolls out cardboard at Jackson Paper. / Special to the Citizen-Times
SYLVA, N.C. — Surrounded by mountains whose woods and waters were once sacrificed for industrial products a century ago, the old mill at Jackson Paper Manufacturing Co. has grown greener with the times, recycling the old into new and reclaiming its waste.
Jackson Paper is North Carolina’s largest manufacturer of 100 percent recycled cardboard. It turns that old cardboard you stuff into your blue recycling bin into new corrugated fluting you would find in cartons of glass bottles at Sam’s Club or in the warehouses of your favorite retail grocer.
By using old cardboard as its only raw material, Jackson diverts 120,000 tons from landfills annually, or the equivalent of 86 million boxes the size of a microwave oven.
Better yet, that cardboard you recycle helps pay the wages for 115 workers at Jackson Paper, one of Jackson County’s largest employers with an annual payroll of $6.3 million.
On Earth Day 2012, recycling isn’t just a feel-good proposition; it saves money for companies and communities while creating new jobs. Recycling across North Carolina has become big business in the past decade, with jobs growing by 48 percent to 14,000 workers statewide, according to the N.C. Division of Pollution Prevention.
Jackson Paper has been recycling cardboard since 1995 at the Sylva mill. Industry on the site goes back more than a century, yet it has not always been as clean or conscientious.
Industry in the 20th century was about products and profits, with little regard for pollution or public health. A tannery operated on the banks of Scott’s Creek from 1901 to midcentury. Virgin wood came down from the surrounding mountains on rail cars to be be boiled down for tannic acid to treat the hides. Then Mead Paper came along and built a paper mill to make corrugated cardboard, dumping even more chemical byproducts into Scott’s Creek.
You can imagine what those waters looked like a few decades ago, much like the polluted waters of the Pigeon River or the French Broad River, flowing past industrial plants.
But now, “we have employees who go fishing and pull 10-pound trout out of those waters,” said Tim Campbell, who along with Jeff Murphy bought the plant in 1995.
Mead Paper was forced to shut the Sylva mill in the ’70s, running afoul of federal environment regulations on water and air quality.
Sylva town fathers turned the keys over to Dixie Container, a Virginia box manufacturer, which spent four years converting the paper plant to process 100 percent recycled cardboard.
Consultants in the industry, Murphy and Campbell were long familiar with the Sylva mill. “Tim and I had had built small recycling mills all around the country, but we didn’t enjoy walking away from the those projects,” Murphy said. “We wanted to run something of our own.”
The two men bought the mill in 1995 and changed the name to Jackson Paper Manufacturing, investing $17 million in upgrades along the way.
“Our people are our biggest advantage,” the co-owners say, pointing to a dedicated workforce that knows how to recycle cardboard and keep a plant running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, churning out 317 tons of paper daily.
Beside the raw material going into the plant, the company makes sure no waste is going out in its process. Its closed-loop water system and treatment plant allow the plant to reuse the huge volume of water needed in paper-making without a dirty drop going back into Scott’s Creek or Sylva’s sewer system.
Jackson doesn’t need fossil fuel to fire its boiler but burns waste wood from sawmills, furniture and flooring manufacturers — another example of how the waste of one company can be worth money to another. Scrubbers prevent the wood ash from leaving the boiler and dirtying the air over town.
Murphy and Campbell also found ways to recycle the existing machinery.
Nicknamed “The Mountaineer,” the paper machine originally installed in 1927 is still rolling out cardboard for the company, upgraded with computerized controls and other parts. “The quality of the metal is just as good as what you can buy today.”
The two men can see Jackson rolling out recycled cardboard for years to come. The biggest challenge is a growing demand and prices for cardboard, especially in China. “The demand for old corrugated boxes in China is just off the chart,” Campbell said.
So that’s why every piece of cardboard that makes its way into the recycling stream, rather than being forever buried in a landfill, is money to manufacturers like Jackson Paper.