Innovative Eastern WA Mill Turns Ag Waste into Booming Business

Photo Courtesy Columbia Pulp

In the eastern Washington town of Pomeroy, they're turning straw into gold. Not literally, of course. This isn't something out of a fairytale, though it could be a Cinderella story for the rural community.

An innovative process is being used in the town of 1,400 that turns straw into pulp for paper products. Every day, Columbia Pulp's pilot plant is taking agricultural waste and turning it into jobs and revenue.

In just the last month, Columbia Pulp's new 18,000 square foot pilot plant in Pomeroy began producing around 10 tons of golden straw pulp every day.

CEO John Begley says they're using what was once agricultural waste and turning it into a revolutionary industry. "The genesis of this goes back a little over 20 years in eastern Washington and western Idaho," Begley says.

Researchers from the University of Washington discovered a way to commercialize the waste from harvesting wheat, reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the process. "Growers would burn the straw to be able to get back to the soil quickly," Begley says of the process that put "thousands of tons of greenhouse gas emissions" into the air.

The wheat straw pulp replaces the need for wood-grade pulps, meaning less environmental impact from logging. This pulping process also claims to use less chemicals and energy and produce less emissions. "From an environmental standpoint, it's definitely a very friendly footprint compared to other manufacturing sites," Begley says.

But Columbia Pulp is just getting started. Construction is nearly complete on a much larger plant in Lyons Ferry. "It will be the first non-wood market pulp mill in North America," Begley explains. In a press release, Columbia Pulp also says it will be the first pulp mill built in the U.S. in 35 years.

"We'll produce 400 tons a day of paper-grade market pulp and another 200 tons per day of bio-polymer, which is the other product stream that comes out of the straw," Begley explains.

It's a big opportunity for the local economy. "It'll employ around 100 full-time employees," Begley says.

It's also good news for farmers, who can earn revenue from waste products instead of paying to burn them. Begley says for communities that thrive on agriculture, it's a win-win. "Within about a 75-mile radius of Lyons Ferry, there is about four million tons of straw generated on an annual basis. We'll be using about 250,000 tons a year, so there's plenty of straw and economically, we'll put back about $70 million a year into the local economy through wages and buying straw and other materials."

The new Lyons Ferry pulp plant is projected to open in mid-December. Begley says they plan on hosting an open house to introduce the community to the facility.

Visit Columbia Pulp's website to learn more.

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