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Mar 26, 201912:02 PMInside Wisconsin

with Tom Still

Paper or plastic? Question tied to future of legacy Wisconsin industry

(page 1 of 2)

An entrepreneur at the March 18 Wisconsin Tech Summit in Green Bay, who happened to be visiting the state, told me he almost came to blows the previous night with another guy in a Milwaukee bar over an unusual flashpoint: plastic straws.

The entrepreneur asked the bartender for a paper straw and the plastic-straw guy called him a “sea turtle lover” while angrily vowing never to give up his plastic straws.

This tale carried two takeaways for me: First, welcome to Wisconsin, where the tourism industry apparently faces more challenges than I imagined. Second, the plastics versus biodegradable debate may carry opportunity for one of Wisconsin’s oldest industries — paper manufacturing.

The “sea turtle” slur was undoubtedly tied to a YouTube video, now seen by nearly 36 million people, that showed a team of marine biologists removing a plastic straw from the nose of a turtle. It’s one of many reasons why companies, cities, and even some states are banning plastic straws, which are rarely recycled and can find their way into streams, lakes, and oceans.

Not that plastic straws make up more than a fraction of the total plastic waste stream, but with about 500 million used per day in the United States, these little tubes of plastic are convenient symbols for the larger debate. If not plastic, however, what’s the alternative?

Paper comes first to mind but it costs five times more to produce a paper straw than a plastic straw — at least, with today’s technology. Oshkosh-based Hoffmaster bought the only producer of paper straws in the United States last year, an Indiana firm called Aardvark, thinking it will be only a matter of time before the demand moves from niche to mainstream.

Other Wisconsin paper companies may not be far behind. Domtar, which has Wisconsin mills in Nekoosa and Rothschild, has made paper for straw manufacturers in the past and is looking at ways to make straws that are durable yet competitive in price. Ahlstrom-Munksjo, with plants in DePere, Kaukauna, Mosinee, and Rhinelander, is doing the same.

These are examples of innovation in an industry that fell on hard times with the coming of the digital age, but which appears poised to turn the corner.

A recent study by the UW–Stevens Point for the Wisconsin Paper Council didn’t gloss over continuing hurdles for the industry, but it concluded Wisconsin is still the nation’s leader in employment and industry shipments. Paperboard container manufacturing is sharply up from a 2013 trough, as well as tissue and other converted paper product manufacturing. Other forms of packaging, especially for food, are also strong. The industry directly accounts for more than 30,000 jobs and 35,000 more in related industries.

(Continued)

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Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.

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