Pulp mill continues ‘above world class’ in uncertain times

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

What a strange year 2020 was, for all sorts of reasons. There have been stories galore about it, but not many of them have been about a pulp mill operating in northern Alberta. A couple of weeks ago we got in touch with Tony McWhannel, manager of Slave Lake Pulp, to find out how it’s been going.

After a slow 2019, prices were dropping in the early part of the year. Slave Lake Pulp was filling old orders in March and April when COVID arrived on the scene, says McWhannel, which could have made things much worse. In many ways it did, but “people started buying extraordinary quantities of tissue, toilet paper and paper towel. Likely hitting all-time records. Meanwhile other pulp and paper products used in masks were in demand. There was enough of a blip in that period to keep the market from shutting down completely.”

Good news for SLP, which managed to keep going. The surge in materials for home renovations – much talked about during the summer – didn’t help the pulp business. The market for printing and writing paper, meanwhile, crashed, due to schools and offices closing or greatly reducing their activities. So tissue paper up, but other paper down, including newsprint.

Printing and writing paper, McWhannel says, was expected to decline at a rate of three to five per cent per year. Instead it plummeted by 40 per cent in 2020.

“With schools closed, no one was buying,” he says.

But there’s always a flip side (at least in 2020 there was) and online shopping had its effect.

“That stuff is often shipped in boxes,” says McWhannel, “So the box and carton board demand increased.”

Cups are up

One interesting sidelight to this phenomenon is the use of paper for packaging of food products such as noodle cups. This apparently wasn’t expected, with offices closing. But take-out orders from restaurants using the ‘clam-shell’ packaging has gone up, and – again – somebody has to come up with the raw material!

Overall, 2020 has been a down market, McWhannel says. “Tissue up, printing down; board up and international markets down. We expect 2021 to be a much better year.”

At the mill

Markets aside, things continue to go pretty well at the mill, McWhannel says. He praises the team there and says although the mill is small, in global terms it competes very well, “like a small-town hockey team, beating the city teams!”

SLP has set production records in the past five years, the proud manager continues, and reliability is “above world class.”

Asked about Slave Lake Pulp’s side project of producing electrical power from mill waste fermentation, he says it’s humming along at 140 per cent of expectations.

A final word for the people he works with: “They are skilled, hard-working, sincere, thoughtful and appreciative. If I look at the plant closures around the continent, I am confident our little mill will continue to compete for decades.”

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