GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. – Something stunning happens at 60 miles per hour inside the UPM Blandin paper mill.
A thin layer of damp white pulp, flattened between forming fabric as it races through a gauntlet of heavy rollers, slips free from its forms.
It ripples like a bedsheet on a clothesline, but it holds together. The newborn paper shoots forward through heated rollers to be pressed and dried, then coated and polished before spooling onto a giant roll. More than 1,000 tons of shiny white paper for magazines and catalogs come off the line every day.
But this is yesterday’s miracle.
The North American paper industry is in rapid decline. Mills have cut thousands of workers and are competing for a shrinking market. A mill in Sartell, Minn., that closed this year after a Memorial Day explosion was the latest to go dark.
“It’s kind of disheartening,” said Jim Skurla, an economist at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. “Paper’s never going to disappear, but it’s going to be smaller than it has been.”
River towns in the forest from eastern Washington to the coast of Maine have lost more than a hundred paper mills in a wave of consolidation in little more than a decade – a trend most people in the industry expect to continue. Wisconsin has lost nine paper mills since 2005.
North American demand for three types of coated and supercalendared paper – shiny magazine and advertising paper – has fallen 21 percent in the past decade, according to the Pulp and Paper Products Council.
Kindles and iPads, email, PDFs, the decline of first-class mail, and waning newspaper and magazine circulations are all to blame.
Analysts predict demand will fall at least another 18 percent by 2024.
The shift is forcing paper mills and mill towns to rethink their future. To survive, they will need to find new products to make out of wood.
“We’ve got to go somewhere,” said James Kent, the controller at UPM Blandin. “The world won’t need paper forever.”
Mill jobs pay well – averaging more than $20 per hour – and the mills support networks of suppliers, contractors and loggers, indirectly accounting for 20,000 jobs in the state.
The mill in Grand Rapids opened in 1902 along a stretch of the Mississippi River that gave the city of 10,000 its name.
Almost all the trees it converts to paper are cut in Minnesota forests.
Loggers truck the timber to the mill, where it gets stacked up to three stories high in a wood yard five football fields long.
About 450 people work at the mill, but most of the human labor happens at the beginning, at the end and in making sure the machinery in the middle doesn’t break.