Small-Town Paper Processing

Completing the environmental life cycle of a waste stream and manufacturing a new product is what recycling and, in particular, paper processing, is all about. From cradle to grave, a hodgepodge of large and small, public and private parties in Tennessee are working together to complete the environmental loop on their landfill's biggest waste culprit - paper.

In Bradley County, a mid-size, east Tennessee community, where 80,000 residents enjoy relative obscurity compared to their larger counterparts in Nashville and Memphis, a successful and thriving paper processing industry grows. Spurred by the efforts of public and private entities working in concert, more than 1 million tons of newsprint are being manufactured, thanks in large part to recycled fiber.

Whether profit-centered, environmentally driven or both, paper processing in a community that's home to two world headquarters of churches has become somewhat of a religion, too. The local Keep America Beautiful (KAB) affiliate's efforts are as valued as the multi-billion-dollar Bowater newsprint operation in nearby Calhoun, Tenn.

Volunteers in the Volunteer State On the heels of new source reduction regulations in the early 1990s and a recommendation from a local solid waste task force, the Cleveland/Bradley KAB became certified as an official KAB affiliate in 1991. Since then, the 78-member volunteer agency has grown its paper processing efforts to 20 tons per month.

Considering that KAB's drop-off center is open to the public only two days per week for a total of eight hours, the increase in paper volumes, as well as other recyclables, is evidence of a concentrated education effort in the community.

"We started in an open field with a chain link fence and barrels," says KAB Executive Director Dyan Hayes. "We had no site supervisor - only volunteers who wanted to see the program succeed."

Since then, several local industries have donated roll-off boxes and trucks. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), Nashville, Tenn., awarded KAB with a $5,000 grant to purchase more equipment, and funded a new position for a full-time site supervisor during the drop-off center's operational hours.

Each month, between 600 to 700 residents bring their mixed paper, newsprint and cardboard products to the site where they're stored in roll-off boxes until enough volume has been collected to warrant transportation to the local paper processor, Cleveland Recycled Fibers (CRF), a division of Rock Tenn, Norcross, Ga.

"We've truly been blessed in this area," Hayes says. "Maybe we're unique to many other communities in the country, but even when the markets disappeared, we never had a problem getting rid of our paper products. [CRF] has been wonderful to us, even when the bottom fell out."

KAB's efforts are complemented by a second public drop-off center at the Bradley County Landfill, which to date has handled more than 500 tons of paper products since the center's opening in 1991.

Dan Bennewitz, chairman of the Bradley County Sanitation Board, which oversees the county's solid waste activities, attributes KAB's success to its commitment in recruiting help from industry and business leaders while giving back to the community in the form of unlimited - and unpaid - manhours to educate and encourage others to recycle.

"It didn't happen overnight, but KAB diligently worked to establish partnerships with industries to make its paper recycling efforts successful," Bennewitz says.

Feeding the Paper Trail With 78 paper processing plants across the country and a workforce of 9,000 employees, Rock Tenn began operations as "CRF" in Bradley County in 1982. With a paper mill in nearby Chattanooga, CRF complements its processing efforts with other buyers across the Southeast.

"Sixty percent to 65 percent of what we bring in goes to our own mill," says Marcus King, CRF's general manager. "The remainder is sent to a variety of other mills across the Southeast."

Depending on the time of the year, CRF's 11 employees process 2,500 tons to 3,000 tons of paper products per month within a 100-mile radius of Bradley County. The fully integrated company provides its paper customers with containers, trailers, balers and transportation service.

"We're not just a recycling company," King explains. "We take paper from the recycling side all the way through the mill process to our folding carton plants where it's cut, shaped and printed. Depending on our customers' volumes, we try to tailor our service to meet their needs."

Although CRF is a division of Rock Tenn, King says CRF must stand alone as a profit-and-loss center. "None of the mills I deal with guarantee they'll take anything," he says. "We're primarily here to service needs. It makes business touchy sometimes when I get into a situation where I'm expecting the mill to take my paper and they won't."

Predicting prices also can be tricky. "Prices have a tendency to fluctuate so quickly it makes it difficult to control pricing. If I'm too low [with my prices], I lose scale traffic. And if I'm too high, I lose money." Regardless of market volatility, King draws on Rock Tenn's corporate philosophy to be service oriented. "I never burn any bridges. I never cut anyone off," he says.

"Whether the markets are good or bad, I'm committed to taking paper from my customers. It may get slow or difficult, but finding a home for [paper] is my responsibility."

Recently, CRF's goodwill with a large industrial customer in the Dalton, Ga., area earned it more than just a hard-sought business relationship.

"There was a grade of paper coming out of Dalton that no one wanted to touch because of the contaminant level," King says. "We decided to accept it and probably had 8 to 10 truck loads sitting on the floor until we finally found a home for it. I not only earned their business, but I earned their respect."

More to Newsprint than Trees Some of the newsprint products that CRF doesn't take to its own mill winds up at the Bowater Newsprint Calhoun Operation in Calhoun, Tenn.

Headquartered in Greenville, S.C., Bowater operates three major paper pulp processing plants including its Calhoun facility, which was established in 1954. Today, Bowater is one of the area's largest industries, employing 1,200 workers who produce approximately 1 million tons of newsprint annually.

Supplementing its virgin fiber with 500 tons per day of old newsprint and magazines, Bowater is considered to be one of the largest waste recyclers in Tennessee.

According to Darrell Douglas, Bowater's director of human resources at the Calhoun facility, finding fiber supplies at an economical price is one of Bowater's biggest challenges. "Even though we grow trees and use recycled fiber, the competition for fiber is tremendous," he explains. "There are so many other companies out there that do what we do and, unfortunately, because of the competition, it drives product costs up, which hurts in the marketplace."

Because the Calhoun mill operates 24 hours per day, seven days per week, it must keep a minimum amount of fiber on hand to ensure continuous operations and profitability. "We take fiber in the form of logs or chips, and we also have a group that buys old newsprint and magazines from within a 100-mile to 200-mile radius," Douglas says.

The catch is that newsprint must be baled to accommodate Bowater's manufacturing process. "We can't take loose newsprint because of the handling and the logistics of our particular technology," Douglas says.

In addition to mixing virgin fibers with recycled newsprint, Bowater burns some 4,300 tires per day - or 1.5 million tires per year - accounting for approximately 30 percent of the total volume of tires produced in Tennessee on an annual basis.

"Tires have an extremely high Btu [British thermal unit] value, much greater than coal," explains Jack O'Grady, director of environmental affairs for the Calhoun facility and a member of the Bradley County Sanitation Board. "In cooperation with the state of Tennessee to help with the solid waste problem, and after conducting extensive testing on our woodwaste boilers, we determined that both the environment and Bowater would benefit from handling this type of solid waste."

Finally, in an attempt to complete the environmental life cycle of its paper products, Bowater is in the process of implementing a $28-million project to convert its boilers to burn much of the facility's residual waste, which currently is landfilled in Bowater's on-site monofill.

TDEC officials were so impressed with Bowater's commitment to become a zero-waste producer, that it awarded the company a $250,000 grant.

"Paper processing in Bradley County is working," Bennewitz says. "Of course, we're fortunate we have industry to make it successful, but we've also got a commitment from a host of other parties to complete our waste paper's environmental life cycle."