Friday, September 22, 2023

West: Coffee buzz

By Becky Johnson

Americans’ latte love affair has helped fuel a comeback for western North Carolina’s largest paper mill. While overall paper use has declined sharply in the digital age, Evergreen Packaging in Canton is beating the odds thanks to rising demand for paper coffee cups.

The mill churns out 1,700 tons of paper a day, once equal parts smooth, white office paper and stiff paperboard, but that balance has shifted as demand for traditional paper wanes.

“We have tried to be smart in our product mix and diversification to counter this trend,” says Dane Griswold, the plant’s general manager. Coffee cups have “always been in our portfolio, but in the past three to five years it has grown.” Daily consumption of specialty coffee drinks has nearly tripled since 2008, and the number of coffee shops in the U.S. is projected to keep rising, according to the National Coffee Association.

The mill’s foray into the coffee-cup market has also gotten a boost from the declining popularity of Styrofoam. Ostracized as an environmental menace, the product made of expanded polyestrene has been ditched by many coffee drinkers and retailers including McDonald’s and Jamba Juice, while cities including Seattle and Washington, D.C., have banned it outright.

Ten years ago, the mill’s signature paperboard line was threatened by a national move toward plastic, but the renewably sourced product is now hotter than ever, in everything from soy- milk cartons to ovenproof trays for convenience foods.

“We’re seeing strong global consumer focus on the importance of sustainable paper-based packaging as a more eco-friendly option,” says Griswold, who has been with the company for more than a decade.

The paper mill built on the banks of the Pigeon River in the early 1900s is adjacent to downtown Canton, with its mill-town heritage still evident in the call of the factory whistle five times a day, silent only on Sundays. With 1,050 employees, Evergreen is the largest private employer in Haywood County and a unionized business.

Owned for generations by Champion Paper and later an employee ownership group, it is now part of New Zealand billionaire Graeme Hart’s paper and packaging empire that has annual revenue of $5.5 billion and 14,000 employees. Earlier this year, Hart consolidated Evergreen and two sister companies and chose Memphis, Tenn., for the combined company’s 70-employee headquarters, bypassing Charlotte, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Rumors the Canton mill was for sale ricocheted through the paper industry two years ago but quietly faded. The mill has emerged as a survivor despite carnage in the nation’s pulp and paper industry — 126 paper mills closed in the U.S. between 2000 and 2015 and scores more shed workers. Evergreen has launched a $50 million coal-to-natural-gas conversion to meet new federal air standards, with a $12 million state grant to help offset the capital upgrades.

Last month, the mill rolled out a new line of cup paperboard with a coating derived from sugar cane, making it popular with eco-conscious consumers.

“We are adapting to make sure we can meet the needs of the marketplace,” Griswold says. “We have a very sustainable future.”

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