Sustainable Forests, Strong Communities
At Sappi North America, innovation continues to make a difference in Maine’s future
In 1854 Samuel Dennis Warren bought a small paper mill on the Presumpscot River in the then-rural outpost of Westbrook. The business he built, S.D. Warren Company, was the first in the country to add wood fiber to the rag pulp originally used to make paper and was also a pioneer in making coated paper—the precursor to the glossy pages in this magazine.
In those same red brick mill buildings, now on the National Register of Historic Places, Sappi North America continues this tradition of innovation. Acquired from Scott Paper in 1994, the Westbrook Mill is now the world’s leading producer of casting and release papers, which provide texture, pattern, and sheen for synthetic leathers and laminates, among other goods. Sappi works with brands to develop papers used to texture materials for “leather” car seats, shoes, wall coverings, furniture, and more. “One of our innovation areas is taking textures into new arenas,” says Beth Cormier, Sappi North America’s vice president of research, development, and sustainability. Through the Maine Innovation, Research, and Technology Accelerator program at the University of Maine, Sappi’s patterned release paper is being used in biotechnical applications, such as a scientific device that needs to channel fluid in a certain direction. “University of Maine is a great partner with Sappi North America,” says Cormier. “They’re also working with us on ways that we can use wood fiber in composites—can we infuse fiber into the mix to make them more renewable but also stronger?”
Much of the innovation at the Westbrook Mill originates at the nearby Technology Center, launched by S.D. Warren in 1929, where some 50 scientists, engineers, and technicians conduct research and development in support of Sappi’s global operations, which also include mills in Europe and South Africa. “A lot of research goes into making our coated papers at higher quality, with materials that are more renewable and that run more efficiently on our manufacturing machines,” says Cormier. The production of coated graphics paper continues at Sappi’s Somerset Mill in Skowhegan; these papers set a new standard in the publishing business in the 1980s with Sappi’s flagship Somerset brand, revolutionizing the aesthetic of magazines. One of the Somerset Mill’s three massive machines was rebuilt as part of a $200-plus million capital investment project in 2018 to make renewable paper-based packaging. Branded Spectro and Proto, the new packaging can be used for luxury packaging and food containers. Among other products, Sappi’s grease-resistant LusterPrint was designed to be used in bags for pet food, coffee, and confectionary items. “We’re doing a lot of research on products in that area,” says Cormier. “One of the grand challenges for our scientists is how we can use cellulose fiber and renewable chemistries to build better barrier packaging that can replace plastic in some applications.”
Beyond paper, Sappi’s scientists are continually looking for ways to diversify uses for wood fiber. In 2019 the company provided materials and technical support for Falmouth eco-entrepreneur Kai Smith, who had an idea to create locally made, environmentally friendly beer coasters using spent grain from the brewing process and Maine wood pulp. Sappi also introduced Verve, its dissolving pulp (DP) product that is spun into viscose and lyocell yarn, in response to customer demands for sustainable, environmentally friendly clothing materials. According to Sappi North America’s 2019 Sustainability Report, DP is both the largest and fastest growing textile sector, due to the attractive characteristics of the fabric and the raw material’s low impact on the environment. An early supporter of the Paris Agreement on climate change, signing the pledge in 2015, the company is a member of the global Sustainable Apparel Coalition, as well as GreenBlue’s Forests in Focus, a platform “to identify risk in forest product supply chains and provide opportunities for achieving positive conservation impacts through the engagement of family forest owners,” according to its website. In 2019 Sappi North America received a gold rating—the highest level of recognition—from EcoVadis, a platform that scores companies based on environmental practices, ethics, sustainable procurement, and labor and human rights. “We are a wood fiber and renewable resource company,” says Cormier. “We are extremely passionate about ensuring that the forests stay healthy.” Because Sappi North America does not own its own forest land, it works with tree farmers and loggers to en-sure that the fiber the company takes in is sustainable. “There is more forest land in Maine than there was 60 years ago,” Cormier says. “And that’s because the forest product industry is committed to ensuring healthy forestry practices.”
Innovative new uses for wood pulp are an economic boon for Maine’s forest industry, which in 2016 represented nearly five percent of the state’s gross domestic product. Of that total, 64 percent was in pulp and paper manufacturing. Dr. Mindy Crandall of the University of Maine has calculated that the industry’s estimated $5.5 billion direct output in 2016 represents a much larger economic impact on the state—$8.5 billion—due to the ripple effect of additional jobs and increased spending. Sappi North America’s 2019 Sustainability Report quotes an October 2019 paper by Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute, which found that 100 jobs in paper and pulp mills support 468 jobs in related industries, such as logging and transportation, and 218 in service industries, such as restaurants and retail. This economic ripple effect in turn supports local schools, infrastructure, and organizations.
Sappi employs over 1,260 Mainers at four locations: the two mills in Skowhegan and Westbrook, the Technology Center in Westbrook, and the Shared Service Center in South Portland. The company is justifiably proud of its safety record—in 2019 the lost-time injury frequency rate was 0.25, Sappi North America’s best ever—and its employees are empowered to keep the company both successful and safe. Sappi’s mills also do a lot of good in their local communities. The company provides good jobs in areas where opportunities are often limited, and Sappi’s investment in new technologies, such as the paper machine conversion at the Somerset Mill, reflects its commitment to the long term. The company encourages employee engagement through technical training, safety and wellness initiatives, and the Employee Ideas that Matter grant program, which annually awards $25,000 to charitable causes pitched by employees. In 2019 Mike Vashon, a production engineer at the Somerset Mill, was one of the employees selected for an award. He and 37 of his mill colleagues used the grant money to build an outdoor reading space at the Oakland Public Library. Employee Ideas that Matter builds on the 20-year-old Sappi North America program, Ideas that Matter, which has provided over $13 million in funding to design projects that make a positive impact on society using print.
To cultivate the next generation of Sappi employees in Maine, the company engages with high school students about the value of a STEM education and supports the University of Maine Pulp and Paper Foundation, including the endowment of a scholarship fund for engineers. Sappi also offers internships and co-ops for undergraduates, who, along with Pulp and Paper Foundation scholarship recipients, often end up building their careers at the company, spurring and supporting the innovation, environmental responsibility, and local engagement that makes Sappi North America such a beneficial presence here. “We have the same kind of passion for our communities that we do for the forests,” says Cormier. “A healthy Sappi equals a healthy Maine.”
Find out more about Sappi North America’s impact on Maine by visiting sappi.com.