A Canadian environmental group’s favourite mill has just been idled. Styled and promoted as North America’s first so-called “tree-free” pulp mill, Columbia Pulp in Starbuck, Washington, was idled on February 18 for lack of demand for its product.

I am not the only person to predict this would happen, most recently in my book Little Green Lies and Other BS. There is a danger in environmental groups hitching their wagons to a model that clearly had major problems from the outset. And it’s a reminder of another venture that was widely promoted by Canopy (Prairie Pulp in Manitoba, Canada) that fell apart.    

Cover of Little Green Lies  - Canopy's tree free mill

Blinded by its vision for the future, Canopy has failed to heed the serious and practical technical criticism that has been offered, instead gushing about Columbia Pulp ushering in a “new green resource sector” and an alternative world of 200 mills making paper without trees.

Columbia Pulp uses a combination of wheat straw and alfalfa to make wet lap pulp for packaging end-uses. But the demand has not been there.

Canopy claimed that such mills use far less water, chemicals, and energy than traditional kraft pulp mills but in Columbia’s case there is no straw-cleaning equipment before its pulping stage; an inadequate washing system; and no equipment to clean up and reuse its process water. In other words, it’s only half a mill. So, any comparison with a wood-pulp mill’s use of energy, chemicals, and water is clearly invalid. 

The cost of building such a mill to capacity has almost doubled over the last couple of years and because Columbia Pulp doesn’t have a full recovery system it has to find a market for 45 million gallons of black liquor coming out the back. There are very few markets for black liquor (because of environmental concerns) which is why (unlike Columbia) wood-pulp mills have chemical recovery boilers.

But perhaps the clincher has been the product of the mill itself. It can only produce low-quality short fibre that does not recycle as well as wood pulp and doesn’t have the strength properties required for most packaging end-uses. 

I wish Columbia Pulp’s employees all the best, but for Canopy perhaps it’s another case of barking up the wrong tree.