Interview with Meredith Grant of NEENAH PAPER: How to Make Paper Sustainably

Posted on 06. Nov, 2009 by in Design & Culture

Grant, Meredith

How many companies that are the biggest in their field are also environmental leaders? Neenah Paper, the largest premium paper manufacturer in North America, is an example of just that. I recently spoke with Meredith Grant, a specialist in environmental marketing at Neenah Paper, about the fascinating programs they are implementing that put them on the cutting edge of sustainable business practice. The company was recently awarded a Green Power Leadership Award by the EPA, and is involved in several ecological programs that improve habitats for wildlife. Not only do they take their role as environmental stewards to heart, they provide an inspiring example of how this can be done effectively, even in an industry that is highly resource and energy intensive.

OG: What is the story behind Neenah Paper?

Meredith: Well, Neenah Paper is North America’s largest manufacturer of premium writing, text and cover papers. Many people are familiar with our fine products division, which provides papers for annual reports, corporate identities collections, thing like that, but we also have a technical products division that makes substrates, which are used for a variety of things people rarely consider, like tape and cabinet veneers. So, our manufacturing capabilities are quite extensive.

We’re a spinoff of Kimberly-Clark, and we became an independent company at the end of 2004. Right out of the gate we established corporate environmental responsibility standards and solidified our commitment to sustainability. We recognize that we need to be environmental stewards, especially because the pulp and fiber industry that we are in is very resource-intensive. Our CEO and senior management team are very engaged in sustainability.

My role was the environment papers manager several years ago, and then more recently I’ve been focusing on the sustainability initiatives at Neenah Paper. I’m the liaison between marketing and operations, so I make sure that our message gets to our consumers.

OG: What goes into the paper making process?

Meredith: The paper making process requires three main components: a lot of fiber, a lot of water and a lot of energy. It’s a controlled process that drives water out of paper, because at the beginning of the process you have a sweet-smelling mixture that looks like fluffy oatmeal and it’s 95% water and 5% fiber. As it goes across the conveyor belt, the water is drained from the paper by gentle agitation, and the fibers are allowed to settle and form very strong bonds. Then it goes through heated dry cylinders, and steam is also used to further draw moisture out of the paper, and at the end of the process you have a sheet of paper that is maybe 5% moisture and 95% fiber. It’s actually fascinating to watch because it happens in such a short time. A liquid substance becomes a roll of dry paper so quickly, it does have a “wow factor” when you see it happen.

You also have a mixture of fibers in a sheet, softwood and hardwood. Different fibers have different properties, and for instance in the case of post-consumer waste we have to slow down the vibration so that the bonds that form will be of equal strength to the bonds formed by virgin fibers.

OG: So, it’s actually more energy intensive to create recycled paper?

Meredith: If you focus on just the first part of the life cycle at the paper mill itself, yes, it does take more energy to make a recycled sheet of paper because you’re taking something old and has been used, so it doesn’t have the properties of virgin fiber, and you have to work with it and manipulate it in order for it to have the same or comparable performance to a virgin sheet of paper. But overall, if you look at the fact that by recycling you are helping to prevent more trees from being harvested and you are helping to avoid an increase in landfill–and paper generates the very potent greenhouse gas methane at this stage, so you’re avoiding the end-of-life emissions as well–a recycled sheet has a very small environmental footprint compared to a virgin sheet.

OG: So, how was the name Neenah chosen? Is there somebody named Neenah?

Meredith: Actually, we’re named after Neenah, Wisconsin. The town of Neenah is located off Lake Winnebago, and it’s where we operate one of our oldest mills, which started operations in 1873. So those from the region recognize the name. The area is called the Paper Valley because there were a lot of mills concentrated there–a lot of mills historically ran off hydro-power electricity, so being located on the Fox River was a convenient as a source of power.

OG: Where does the water go when it’s pressed out of the fluffy oatmeal substance?

Meredith: It is treated at our mills, and then it gets discharged back to the source. We take water from the Fox River, use it, and then almost all of it is returned back to the source, as clean as or even cleaner than when we got it. It goes through a very elaborate treatment process. In fact, there are wonderful pictures of the mills where people are fishing and swimming right next to where the water discharges, so it’s very clean, and that contributes to a very strong sense of community because we’re not damaging the local area. There’s a hospital next door, an antique store across the street, a sandwich shop within walking distance, and we really appreciate the small town feeling. There are families that have worked at the mill for generations, and I think this sense of a strong community really contributes to our environmental policies and our commitment to employee safety and morale.

Neenah Paper Mill in Wisconsin

Neenah Paper Mill in Wisconsin

OG: It’s very impressive to hear that about the largest fine paper manufacturer in the country. I was picturing a much more industrial atmosphere.

Meredith: Lots of people do! It’s actually a very intimate environment, not what people might think of when they picture a paper mill. There’s a distinction between a fine paper mill, and what we in the industry call a commodity paper mill, that makes white office paper. Our machines are very short, and the space is small, and it doesn’t have the footprint that a commodity mill has. At a commodity paper mill the machine attendants have to ride bicycles up and down their paper machines because they are so long. In fine paper it’s a different world, we have such a diversity of colors and textures that we have to start and stop the press to make adjustments, it’s more about quality, whereas a commodity mill’s goal is simply to keep the machines running as often and as long as possible. So at Neenah it’s a smaller space, a smaller mill, and I think what people think of is big smokestacks and big industry, and it doesn’t have that feel.

OG: You were recognized recently by the EPA for your sustainability practices.

Meredith: We are a 2009 EPA Green Power Award winner, and we received this award primarily based on our purchases of green e-certified renewable energy. To be an EPA Green Power partner, it requires that you purchase a minimum of 20% green e-certified renewable energy, and as a result of that purchase, and the fact that we have incrementally increased our green energy consumption over the course of several years, we were recognized by both the EPA and the Center for Resource Solutions, who co-hosted the award.

OG: Is that wind and solar energy? Tell me more about it.

Meredith: We have always been committed to purchasing from local sources, so we’ve purchased our energy through local utilities, and this year we also made the decision to purchase wind energy credits, the proper term is wind energy green e-certified renewable energy certificates, from a supplier called NextEra. We’re participating in a program where the revenues of our purchases of green energy go toward the financing of new renewable energy projects, both wind and solar, in the United States, so we’re very excited about that. It’s a new program, and many companies are participating in it, such as REI and Home Depot.

OG: Were you yourself drawn to Neenah Paper because of its proactive environmental stance?

Meredith: Well, before Neenah I worked for an air pollution control company, still very much in an environmental space, which is why I was familiar with the Neenah brand name. I was a natural fit, I was very interested in the environmental marketing side of the business. The business I was in before focused on the manufacturing of air filtration devices that removed hazardous and toxic gases from the air in a variety of industries. For example, museums are very concerned with protecting and preserving artifacts. You hear about sick building syndrome a lot, well not only do those toxic gasses affect the health of people, they are also detrimental to the artifacts and paintings in a museum. We also worked with businesses to improve air quality for the health of their employees. So it was very much a natural fit coming to Neenah, and thinking about the environmental space and being an environmental steward, and also all the things we do with philanthropy to try to improve the world around us.

OG: Tell me about the Osa Peninsula project in Costa Rica.

Meredith: That’s a very exciting project for us. It was established by the Nature Conservancy and Conservation International and Friends of the Osa. We are participating through our partnership with the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin. The Osa peninsula, and the 1500 acres of conservation property that we are helping to reforest, are very important ecologically. This property is actually a biological corridor between two national parks. We were attracted to the project because it’s a carbon-sequestering project and we were very much interested in that, but even more than that we were attracted to the conservation aspects that will help restore the flora and fauna of these areas once they are reforested. It also has a very strong local tie to us because there are 54 native Wisconsin species of birds that migrate to this particular area of Costa Rica for the winter. Wisconsin is a very green state, and the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin has been very actively involved in tracking the migratory path of these birds. Eighteen of them are state conservation priorities, and three are actually listed as threatened species. So not only did we think it was very cool to participate in a reforestation initiative, but also that we were helping to provide a habitat for something that is very important to our state.

OG: Meredith, I just got tingles. That is such a cool story.

Meredith: Yeah, it is a cool story. One of the things that is so important to me about it is that it is important to continue focusing on carbon neutrality, as a big manufacturer that uses a lot of resources. We’re always committed to finding ways to make our paper more efficiently and reduce our environmental footprint by using less energy, and then we focus on using green energy to meet the energy requirements we do have. While we continuously improve that in steps we can afford and manage, this has a different message. We’re actually helping to improve the natural habitat in the world. It still has a carbon-neutrality component, but this is very much a plus for the environment and is going to help conserve wildlife. It’s a win win win all the way around.

OG: Also the fact that the property you’re helping is a biological corridor, as I learned when I studied tropical ecology, means that the benefit will be exponential. It’s not just another part of the habitat, it’s a very important piece because it allows wildlife populations to breed with other populations that had been kept separate, and that strengthens the stock, and keeps the gene pool from getting too small. So that’s really amazing.

Meredith: Yes, and this particular area is also so unique and important because it harbors the last grove of old growth rainforest on the western flank of Central America. It’s actually believed to be one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world.

OG: Yes, the equatorial region is so rich with life.

Meredith: And we’re so dependent on what the rainforests provide to us, this is a much stronger message than we thought. We had considered several projects but decided on this one because it pulls together so many great elements, and pulls at the heartstrings a little bit. But we also do a lot in the state of Wisconsin, we’re focused on the Wisconsin State Natural Areas Program, which protects areas that harbor 95% of endangered animals and 75% of endangered plants, so they’re protected in these areas. Our money also goes toward training the conservationists that manage these areas, including grasslands, parks, and other green spaces.

OG: I look at these kinds of projects as little gems that shine through everything that you do in a company, and provide so much inspiration and hope. But I think it’s also important to recognize another thing at Neenah Paper. I was talking to an environmental consultant recently, and he made a very good point, which is if you are so dedicated to sustainability and protecting the environment that you put yourself out of business, then you aren’t helping anybody. Then there’s one less environmentally conscious company in the world, and it also gives people a false idea that sustainability can’t be practiced in a way that supports business. So I want to commend Neenah Paper, because you are taking incremental steps in a way that is smart and sustainable.

Meredith: I very much agree with that and appreciate that. There is a lot of fear out there and a lot of talk about greenwashing. There is the fear that companies are overstating their claims, and taking undue credit for the positive initiatives they participate in, or twisting these initiatives to make them look like more than they are, but it’s important to realize that there is a difference between being able to sustain your business and having a sustainable strategy, and you have to find a way to marry those two. I don’t think there is one consensus on how to do that, I think anything that a company is doing to offset it’s carbon footprint is a very positive thing, because in the short-term those are costs to the company. Though in the long term they can result in cost savings. So, they have to be managed well and responsibly. And I think that companies should be able to market and talk about what they’re doing so that they can continue to grow those efforts and generate awareness.

Here at Neenah we do have a very strong carbon neutral marketing platform, because we want people to be able to discuss it and we want to generate awareness. And since we are one step removed from the customer, we don’t sell directly to the customer, we want to give them that information so they can come back to Neenah and ask questions if they want to.

OG: Thank you so much Meredith. I look forward to meeting you at Opportunity Green!

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