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Port Alberni paper mill capitalizes on convenience food trend

Diversification was needed for the mill to thrive, says G.M.
Marc Bodin is general manager of Paper Excellence Canada’s paper mill in Port Alberni. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)

When Paper Excellence Canada announced in mid-December it will invest $13 million in its Port Alberni mill to increase production of food grade paper, it was the company’s response to a pivot in restaurant trends. And while Canadians have taken food delivery to new heights during coronavirus pandemic, this shift was already happening, says Port Alberni general manager Marc Bodin.

Paper Excellence bought the mill in Port Alberni from Catalyst Paper a year and a half ago. Headquartered in B.C., Paper Excellence manufactures pulp and specialty printing, writing and packaging papers in eight facilities in Canada. The company collectively produces more than 3.0 million tonnes of product annually.

The $13-million investment is the company’s first large investment in the central Vancouver Island facility. “This demonstrates PE’s commitment to making Port Alberni a viable operation going forward,” Bodin said.

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Bodin has worked at the Port Alberni mill since 2010. Previous to that he worked with the pulp operations in both Crofton and Powell River. He says the investment in equipment “helps us be more competitive in the new products we’re producing.

“We’ve been working very hard for the last two years to develop food grade products and demonstrate that we can do it here,” he said. “It’s been the ingenuity and hard work of the people that work here in this facility that made it happen.”

They’ve been rewarded with the investment needed to make more of it.

The timing seems right. In an article on Canada’s foodservice industry in, food service delivery sales in Canada were $3.3 billion between February 2018 and February 2019. Full service and fast food restaurant sales in Canada during the same period, the NPD Group reported, totaled $57 billion. All those restaurants delivering food need some sort of covering for their sandwiches, fries and burgers.

The paper mill’s core business under Catalyst and now Paper Excellence has been printing grade paper—publication paper for newspapers, magazines and advertising flyers. “Those have been declining for many years,” Bodin said.

“We believe it’s going to remain a key piece of business for us, but it’s not going to be enough to provide a sustainable future. We’ve worked very hard to diversify and develop other grades such as food packaging that will provide a more sustainable future.”

Examples of food grade products that Paper Excellence is able to manufacture includes paper that gets a wax coating, or laminated with aluminum foil and becomes a pouch, or a wrap that would go around a sandwich, or made into a bag for French fries. Even with the increase in pre-packaged food and takeout products “paper is biodegradable, it’s a renewable resource. It’s a good alternative to plastic packaging,” he said.

There are different grades of food grade paper too, from products servicing the fast food industry to paper that slips between pieces of pre-cooked bacon, for example.

“It’s actually a fairly sizeable market,” Bodin said.

In COVID-19 times, the number of people ordering takeout has skyrocketed as restaurants—restricted by COVID-19 protocols—have had to be more inventive with getting their product to consumers. Food and beverage providers have also shied away from accepting reusable containers in favour of single-use items to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

“Food packaging grades are growing worldwide, growing versus publication grades, which are declining. Certainly, we’ve seen an uptick due to COVID, but it’s growing as people are working more and have less available time to maybe cook at home. Convenience foods are absolutely growing.”

There are 310 people working at Paper Excellence in Port Alberni, and vice-president of Paper and Packaging Patrick Corriveau said the investment translates into job security for those employees. “With the mill’s best-in-class papermakers and the ability to make even more of these new food grades, we’re confident in the Port Alberni mill’s secure and long-term future,” Corriveau added.

“For us, this is a sign of the commitment that Paper Excellence is making in the Port Alberni facility,” Bodin said. “I think it’s a piece of good news everybody could use right now.”

Detailed engineering for the project will start shortly, followed by procurement of equipment. Paper Excellence anticipates the project will be finished in the latter half of 2021.

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Susie Quinn

About the Author: Susie Quinn

A journalist since 1987, I proudly serve as the Alberni Valley News editor.
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