* This post is sponsored by Georgia-Pacific; however, all thoughts and opinions are my own*
This month I got to go on a unique field trip to see the behind-the-scenes operations at the Georgia-Pacific Paper Mill in Palatka, FL and learn about their positive impact in North Florida and their environmentally conscious efforts that led to them being the first paper mill to ever earn the EPA Energy Star Industry Challenge award. When I told my husband I was touring a paper mill for the blog, he asked how that fit with my blog’s “geek angle.” My response? “What’s geekier than paper? Books are made on paper! I’m totally a fan of paper.” Little did I know I would soon be immersed not in books and paper sheets, but in the high-tech world of toilet paper, napkins and household paper products.
Our tour started with a van ride into the massive mill complex where we were outfitted with hard hats, a vest, safety goggles and ear plugs. They take safety very seriously! Our group leader Meg, a self-professed toilet paper nerd, shared her enthusiasm for the product as we entered an office building for breakfast and a slide show all about the history of the mill. Our tour guide Terry led us through the mill history from its humble beginnings in 1947 with one kraft paper machine to an operation covering 6,000 acres, employing almost 1,000 people and becoming the largest manufacturing site in Florida. While they started with kraft paper, which is used to make things like bags for pet food and sugar, the Georgia-Pacific Palatka mill now manufactures many household products including Quilted Northern®, Angel Soft®, Brawny® and Sparkle®.
After our slide show, we loaded back into the van to go see the mill in action. As we drove around we got to see first-hand a lot of what was talked about on the slides. First we passed by giant logs being loaded into the machines where they are debarked. Every bit of the tree is used, either for product or for fuel, and any wood waste is transformed into energy called woody biomass. Biomass is an environmentally efficient and responsible energy source that helps the Georgia-Pacific Palatka mill be able to create 60% of its own power.
Each tree is then chopped up into chips that are a very specific size, thickness and moisture content that will determine the quality of the final paper product. It all starts with the quality of the chips! Chips that don’t make it to the pulping process are sold off as garden bark or used for fuel. We then passed the large silver cylinders where the chips are softened with chemicals to separate the pulp fibers from the lignin. The residue left over is very valuable and burned as fuel after the chemicals and water have been removed. The pulp fibers are then washed and bleached to become paper stock. The stock is then dried, softened and cut into smaller rolls to make soft, yet strong toilet paper.
Our last stop on the mill tour was at the Angel Soft complex boasting the newest tech in paper towel and toilet tissue machinery. While driving around the mill, some of the buildings appear from the outside to have been there since the beginning. But stepping inside you can appreciate the pristine environment and how high-tech everything really is. We learned about the TAD (through air dried) process that is used to make premium tissue paper products and how toilet paper is now laminated with a starch solution that eliminates any two-ply separation issues. There’s a lot that goes into each paper product. I don’t think I’ll ever look at toilet paper the same again!
Also, with the investment in all that high-tech machinery, Georgia-Pacific has invested in the local workforce by creating a need for technical people qualified to run those complicated machines. They’ve started recruiting students interested in advanced manufacturing at the high school level by making a 3-year $122,000 commitment to Putnam County School District to pay for laboratory equipment for an Advanced Manufacturing Academy in three local high schools. The academy helps students become qualified entry-level employees ready to keep up with all the new manufacturing upgrades.
And if you were wondering about that famous “paper mill smell,” which comes from the process of creating pulp, there was none! In fact, the mill has made a concentrated effort in the last 20 years or so to not be a source of odor because a good neighbor is not a stinky neighbor. And the Georgia-Pacific Palatka mill wants to be a good neighbor. In fact, the mill’s estimated economic impact to the local economy is $750 million per year, including more than $4 million in local property taxes and $13 million in purchases from local vendors. They also invest $200,000 annually in community charity, enrichment, education and entrepreneurship programs.
Which leads us to the very last stop on our tour, the St. Johns River Center in Palatka, which opened in 2015. The center, located in a beautiful spot on the river, is a great resource for students to learn about the wetlands that make Palatka so unique. It features interactive exhibits that teach lessons about the local environment and animal life. They also produce a curriculum available to all teachers and meets Florida state standards for grades 2-7. With over 40,000 visitors since it opened, Georgia-Pacific is truly making a positive impact on the community at every level.