Iowa home to largest corrugated recycling plant

George C Ford

March 11, 2015

4 Min Read
Iowa home to largest corrugated recycling plant

[ McClatchy-Tribune Information Services ]

As the Cedar Rapids-Linn County Solid Waste Agency was preparing to stop accepting cardboard at its two landfills in 1990s, a $500 million capital investment in the Corridor provided a ready market for the banned material. At the time, it was the largest single corporate capital investment in Cedar Rapids history.

Weyerhaeuser Co. of Federal Way, Wash., and a partner, BE&K of Birmingham, Ala., constructed Cedar River Paper Co. at 4600 C St. SW.


In August 2008, Cedar River Paper was sold to International Paper as part of its purchase of Weyerhaeuser packaging business and renamed International Paper-Cedar River Mill. The $6 billion deal involved nine cardboard mills, 72 packaging plants (including a facility at 920 Shaver Rd. NE in Cedar Rapids) and other operations employing about 14,300.


IP-Cedar River Mill has two mills that use steam to transform used cardboard into linerboard, the outer layers of cardboard, and medium, the wavy material in the middle of cardboard. The linerboard and medium are shipped as large rolls to packaging plants in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and the Midwest where they are joined with glue to create cardboard.


International Paper has two core businesses -- cardboard and printing paper. With the Weyerhaeuser acquisition, International Paper became the largest North American manufacturer of cardboard boxes. IP-Cedar River Mill, which employs 220, is the largest cardboard recycling mill in North America and the fourth-largest facility in the world.


IP-Cedar River Mill Manager Pete Thompson said the plant, which operates around the clock, has a voracious appetite for used cardboard boxes or "corrugated containers" as they are known in the industry.


"We're on track to produce a million tons of medium and liner this year," Thompson said. "In the process of making those finished tons, we're probably going to consume a little over a million tons of raw material or old corrugated containers.


"With our proximity to Chicago, Kansas City, Minneapolis and St. Louis, we're located in the middle of about 18 million to 20 million people. A lot of our old corrugated containers come not only from Iowa, but also from the surrounding region.

"It also allows us to ship finished product out to those areas and backhaul old corrugated containers."


Thompson said IP-Cedar River Mill has a goal of being landfill-free in terms of waste material disposal. He said the plant has a permit to apply "spent" cardboard fibers on fields and there are companies that accept plastic and metal removed from the used cardboard.


IP-Cedar River Mill is unusual in the industry in that it uses 100 percent recycled material -- no wood pulp. While that enables it to be profitable and eliminates the odor common to mills using wood pulp as a raw material, Thompson said it also has a heavy dependence on suppliers.


"We rely on Alliant Energy's Prairie Creek Generating Station for our steam and the City of Cedar Rapids for water treatment," Thompson said. "It allows us to focus on making paper -- and that's a good thing. We're one of the most efficient mills in the IP system.


"When the mill started up, it was designed to produce 1,650 tons per day and we're routinely running at 2,850 tons per day. That's pretty impressive and it's been done over time by a great work force and some targeted capital expenditures that have really paid off."


Since 2008, more than $30 million has been invested in the Cedar Rapids facility for process and safety improvements, energy reduction projects and maintenance projects, according to Thompson. Another $10 million is earmarked for capital improvements next year.


"We renewed our electrical contract with Alliant Energy in the spring and we just signed a 15-year steam contract, so that's pretty much set us up for the next 10 to 15 years." Thompson said. "With the signing of those contracts and the capital improvements made by the company, I'm convinced that we're in this thing for the long run."


Recycling of old corrugated containers nationally, driven by both increased domestic demand and exports, rose 11.2 percent in 2010. That lifted the recovery rate to 85.1 percent, up from 82 percent in 2009, according to the Paper Industry Association Council, a trade organization.


Joe Horaney, communications director for the Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency, said the amount of cardboard ending up in the landfill continues to decline. The last two waste sorts conducted since the landfill ban on cardboard went into effect in 1999 show a positive trend.


In 1996, before the ban took effect, 7 percent of the waste in the landfill was old corrugated cardboard. By 2005, that had declined to 3.5 percent and the latest sort in 2010 found that only 1.9 percent of the waste ending up in the land was old corrugated cardboard.


A survey conducted earlier this year for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources involving 12 landfills found that 9 percent of the waste was old corrugated cardboard. A team from MidAtlantic Solid Waste Consultants, Cascadia Consulting Group and Foth Infrastructure & Environment conducted the "2011 Iowa Statewide Waste Characterization Study" in the spring and early summer months.


(c)2011 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)

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