By Kristen Holliday
In this third and final segment on B.C.’s forest industry, pulp and paper workers discuss their challenges and expectations for the future.
See the challenge, meet the challenge
Inside the Howe Sound Pulp and Paper mill just north of Gibsons, the paper machine sits permanently inactive.
Once used to make newsprint, decreasing demand caused owner Paper Excellence to shut down the equipment in 2015, eliminating 170 jobs.
After operating for over a century, the mill now solely focuses on making kraft pulp, a strong fibre used in products like tissues and paper packaging.
Siew Sim, environmental specialist for the mill, says the company tried to reinvent uses for paper that could be created from the machine, but demand was low.
“If I have to go over to the paper machine, it honestly makes me really emotional. It makes me really sad to see this beautiful machine sitting idle.”
The recent sector decline is the latest in a history of challenges the pulp and paper industry has weathered.
The provincial government reports the sector processes nearly 50 per cent of the total volume of wood harvested, mostly in the form of residual chips and sawdust from cutting timber.
B.C.’s forestry exports generated $12 billion in 2019, and roughly one-third, over $4 billion, was for pulp and paper products. The sector supports nearly 9,000 workers, according to WorkBC.
In the past year, timber shortages, high regulatory fees and weak international markets led to mill closures and curtailments. Subsequently, as sawmills slow production, pulp mills face a decreasing fibre supply.
Sim was raised on the Sunshine Coast, and her father worked at the Howe Sound mill. Like most kids in a small town, her first thought was how quickly she could “get out.”
Sim studied biology, economics and business in Ontario. After university, she returned to the coast, planning to work at the mill in an environmental capacity for a year. This turned into a 27-year career.
A pulp mill is highly automated. Part of Sim’s job is to review data, tracking operations and troubleshooting anomalies.
“Whether it’s a pump or flow meter, or a pH meter, or a temperature sensor, it sends a signal to this automated system that operators will be monitoring,” she explains.
She says the mill’s effluent treatment system is “near and dear” to her heart.
In this process, concentrated bacteria is used to clean chemicals from the wastewater.
“It’s actually a great big living organism. What it does is so absolutely amazing, because it takes essentially toxic effluent, and cleans it up, and makes it safe to be released into the environment – safe enough that little baby trout can live in it.”
James Armstrong, chief instructor for BCIT’s industrial instrumentation programs, says the variety of instruments used to control and measure pulp mill processes make it an exciting work environment for instrumentation and control technicians.
“Just about every kind of instrument you could possibly imagine is in there,” he says.
“If you love solving problems, this is the business to be in. Because it’s something different every single day. And the technology is changing every single day.”
Instrumentation and control technicians are certified tradespeople who install, calibrate and service instruments controlling process flow in industrial operations.
Armstrong estimates there are 1,000 certified technicians in B.C., a quarter of them working in pulp and paper mills.
“How well they set up the controls will basically determine the [operational] efficiency,” Armstrong explains.
Efficiency translates into more profits – critical in an economically difficult time.
The diversity of work in a pulp and paper mill drew Kristie Ross, manager of health, safety and protection for Crofton Mill, to the industry in 2007.
Ross supervises a crew of 12 who work 24/7 shifts. She performs audits, equipment and hazard inspections and helps build safety programs.
“You’re dealing with chemicals; you’re dealing with rotating equipment; you’re dealing with things like having a port; having your own railroad. So there’s just a lot of different things you’re doing on a day-to-day business, which I find exciting.”
Ross sees heightened anxiety and low morale among employees when there is a downturn.
However, she says many workers, including herself, are used to the “ebb and flow” of the sector.
“Pulp and paper people are very resilient. They see a challenge, they meet the challenge. So there can be financial challenges; there can be challenges with something a customer wants; there’s always new challenges coming up and this is just another one.”
Orlando Rojas, director of UBC’s Pulp and Paper Centre, says the industry’s future is in competitive products that “go beyond pulp and paper,” integrating pulp operations with local community knowledge.
“I think in the future, we are going to be working more with the concepts of locality and resource efficiency, and using the resources around us.”
Rojas’ work as scientific director for UBC’s BioProducts Institute recently made headlines. The research team designed a compostable, biodegradable medical mask made in Canada, from B.C. fibre. Prototypes are currently being tested.
James Olson, dean of UBC’s faculty of applied science and a forest products researcher, predicts a shift from plastics to paper packaging, and points to ongoing research on wood fibre molecules.
Wood molecules and nanoparticles have applications from high-strength materials used in car manufacturing, to textiles and pharmaceuticals.
Olson believes this research will boost industry health by placing increased value on sawmill wood waste.
“That makes the sawmills more profitable. And it makes the forest sector more profitable. So it’s just a healthier economic sector for British Columbia, as well as all of the sustainability gains you have.”
Dorian Uzzell, third-generation logger and an owner and partner of Wahkash Contracting on Vancouver Island, agrees forestry’s achievements have built communities and supported families across the province.
He hopes it continues.
“B.C. has an amazing working forest … every British Columbian needs to find a way to stand up to protect that working forest, because we need it, and the world needs it.”
Kristen Holliday is a 2020 graduate of the Langara College journalism program. She pursued this series in partnership with Black Press Media.
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