WEST LINN, Ore. — On the banks of the Willamette River in West Linn sits a 130-year-old paper mill.
The factory, once sewn into the state's fabric, faced the same fate as other paper mills in Oregon and shuttered in 2017. The closure cost 250 workers their jobs.
But after a multi-million dollar investment the paper mill re-opened in July. Formerly West Linn Paper Company, it is now called Willamette Falls Paper Company.
They were able to open up again because of the new innovative and sustainable way they're making paper.
Willamette Falls Paper Company is taking straw pulp and turning it into paper products, combined with wood pulp. They are the only ones in North America making straw pulp paper to this scale.
A KGW crew got a tour of the mill on Monday as commercial production for a new line of wheat straw pulp paper products ramps up.
"The mill has been here for the last 130 years and we want to create a future for at least another 130 years based on innovation,” Willamette Falls Paper Company Technical Director Cafer Arac said.
The company is combining straw and wood fiber to give them the product properties they need to create durable paper.
Half of the paper is made with fibers from wheat straw from a few hundred miles away in southeastern Washington. The agricultural waste would otherwise be taken off the field and either thrown out or burned, polluting the air.
“[By] going after agricultural waste we believe we are preventing air pollution,” Arac said.
This more sustainable method takes pressure off our forests as well.
“Paper doesn't have to necessarily come from trees,” Willamette Falls Paper Company Director of Technology and Sustainability Phil Harding said.
For the past few months, the mill has been churning out and selling communications papers with agricultural waste; think magazine paper, printing paper and note pads.
Harding says they are using the straw pulp to make paper items like shopping bags, fast food bags, bagel sleeves and wine bottle wrapping.
The ultimate goal is to make paper from 100 percent straw pulp.
“[It’s] very unique. We don't know any other company in the united states that is making this,” Arac said. “In the next 50 or 100 years when people use 100 percent agricultural waste tree-free paper, they should know it started right here!”
Willamette Falls hired 120 people; of the first 100, they were able to hire back 95 people who had worked there before it closed down.
The mill is in Oregon State Rep. Rachel Prusak’s (D - Tualatin/West Linn) district. She says former employees came to her last legislative session and advocated to reopen the mill and get their jobs back.
“It’s really exciting that I had people who worked here their entire lives meet me in Salem wanting to save it,” Rep. Prusak said, “And that they were actually able to make that happen is unbelievable and amazing. To bring 120 jobs back to the community, including people who used to work here get their jobs back.”