What if instead of plastic, those hard-to-recycle clamshells that hold produce or to-go food were made out of straw? Washington company Columbia Pulp is doing just that, turning straw into paper products.
There is a lot of straw that remains in the ground after wheat has been harvested in Eastern Washington and Oregon. Many farmers burn straw to get rid of it, but instead of doing that, Columbia Pulp is processing it into things that can be used.
"We avoid the burning of over 100,000 acres of wheat straw fields by farmers," said Dr. Phil Harding, vice president of applications for Columbia Pulp.
He spent 12 years as a professor of chemical engineering at Oregon State University.
"The carbon footprint of our process is approximately half that of conventional fiber making processes," Harding explained.
In 2019, the plant opened near Dayton, Washington. It was the first company in the nation to make paper out of straw instead of trees.
"The sustainability messaging is certainly exciting with regards to protecting our forests," Harding said.
Columbia Pulp partners with Willamette Falls Paper Mill in West Linn to make everything from bags and bagel sleeves to wine bottle wrapping. The company is in talks with a number of other manufacturers to make straw-pulp paper products of all kinds. It's a way to take something the Pacific Northwest has plenty of — something that would otherwise be tossed out or burnt up, and put it do good use, while also saving some trees.
"So all of this basically contributes to a more sustainable economy, lower carbon footprint, and a greater choices for consumers that are interested in protecting the environment," Harding said.