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Good on Paper: Roaring Spring's Innovation Means Less Coal

Brumbaugh inspects the proprietary sample fuel
Brumbaugh inspects the proprietary sample fuel
American Eagle Paper Mills, a Central PA company specializing in recycled paper, depends on coal. The combustible rock powers a boiler that generates steam to dry the paper American Eagle creates from recycled material. Coal also runs a turbine that produces the company's heat and about 60 percent of its electricity.

But American Eagle, based in the Central PA town of Tyrone, could end up replacing at least some of the coal it uses with a fuel source that, like the paper it makes, is made of material that would otherwise end up in a landfill. And it would come from another paper company just 30 miles down Interstate 99.

Roaring Spring Paper Products, which has made school notebooks in the small town of Roaring Spring since 1887, is opening up another line of business in addition to the school and office supplies it's known for. The process of making notepads and copy paper produces a lot of waste, and Roaring Spring has developed a way to compress that waste into cubes that could replace the coal currently burned at other manufacturing facilities.

Commitment In a Changing Marketplace
The idea goes back to 2007, when Roaring Spring's management pledged to reduce the 20 tons it sent to landfills each week. Within two months, 95 percent of the waste it generated was being diverted from landfills.

Leftover cuttings and other paper waste were sent to a recycling facility in Ohio. But in 2008, rising prices for diesel fuel and decreasing prices for recyclable paper meant it actually would have been cheaper to send the waste to a landfill.

"We looked at our recycling bill and we weren't getting much for it," says Bradd Kurtz, the company's health and safety director.
 
Rather than dispose of the paper waste in a traditional way, he wanted to condense it into pulp so it would take up less space on a recycling truck. Around the same time that Roaring Spring was having trouble getting much money for its recyclable paper, Kurtz bought a wood-burning pellet stove to heat his house.

He and Bill Brumbaugh, who manages the company's warehouse, thought of another idea: Perhaps the waste paper could be somehow turned into a burnable energy source, like the pellets that powered Kurtz' new stove. That wouldn't just save Roaring Spring money on trucking it to Ohio, but it could also provide a use for paper-based products many recycling facilities don't take.

The Long Paper Trail of Recycling
Some used paper products can't easily be recycled here, so low-quality material is often processed overseas. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in 2010, 39 percent of all paper Americans recycled was sent abroad. And Brumbaugh seriously dislikes the idea of cardboard boxes covered in black ink being put on China-bound ships because American companies won't do anything with them. "When you look at the carbon footprint of that stuff, it makes no sense," he says.

Brumbaugh says the Roaring Spring team was encouraged to pursue the idea by management with a history of forward-thinking ideas. (Back in 1981 a division of the paper-product company started bottling and selling water from the spring that gave Roaring Spring its name.)
 
The company aims to conserve resources in other ways, too. It makes and sells office supplies from recycled paper. Roaring Spring gets rolls of paper made from sugarcane pulp at an Indian plant and makes them into notebooks. It also sells (but doesn't make) note paper made out of horse, cow and elephant dung. Sustainability initiatives go over well in the marketplace, especially considering that Roaring Spring is the main supplier of notebooks custom-printed for college bookstores.

"We truly wanted to be the most environmentally friendly paper converter," Brumbaugh says. "We wanted to be able to brag about it to the colleges, because it would be good marketing."

No Easy Substitute
Roaring Spring wanted its new fuel source to be comparable to the coal many manufacturers use for heat. Selling it nearby would reduce the carbon footprint involved in reusing the waste paper.

Bruce Miller, associate director of the Earth and Material Sciences Energy Institute at Penn State University, analyzed two of the company's preliminary samples in 2008. Finding a biomass product that can substitute for coal is no easy task, he says, because biomass has less energy output than the same amount of coal.

That’s why American Eagle Paper Mills hasn't yet committed to using the fuel cubes, says the company's president, John Ferner. Besides knowing how much energy the fuel cubes would generate, American Eagle would also like to know how many Roaring Spring could supply.

Two employees have been hired to run the equipment that makes the cubes. The setup begins with a conveyor belt that feeds the waste into a grinder that looks sort of like a giant version of an office paper shredder. The shredded material goes into a bin outfitted with a huge magnet that removes metal waste, such as nails and wires. After that it's moistened – to stick together the material has to have a composition of between 12 and 15 percent water that eventually evaporates -- and fed through an extruder. The substance is heated to 220 degrees before it moves on to another container where it cools down to room temperature. 
 
The result is thousands of cubes measuring about one inch wide, one inch thick and four inches long.
 
Significantly, Roaring Spring's recipe can take essentially any wood- or paper-based product. As a result it's accepting broken wooden skids, heavily inked cardboard and other products that manufacturers from far and wide have a hard time disposing of.

For now, bins of thousands of the cubes are sitting in the warehouse. Roaring Spring is working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to determine which permits would be needed by companies that want to buy the cubes for a coal substitute.

Once those details are worked out, Brumbaugh foresees the cubes made of wood and paper supplying manufacturers around the region that currently use coal. 

Positioning PA As a National Leader
Miller says coal-fired power plants use a powdery coal that isn't easily replicated. But smaller-scale consumers – schools and factories, for example – use coal that comes in larger chunks. Biomass products like the cubes Roaring Spring makes can be at least a partial substitute for that coal. 

"I'm sure that they can find applications for their product," Miller says.

Brumbaugh isn't looking to displace coal entirely, but says the cubes could reduce the amount of coal future customers need.

"Pennsylvania is positioned to where it can be truly the national leader in fuel cube production because we have so many people burning coal and so many paper mills," he says.

Federal data show the Keystone State had 262 paper manufacturing companies in 2007, about 8 percent of the nation's total. That year about 2.6 million tons of coal were used in manufacturing statewide.
 
Finding an alternative that works as well as coal is difficult but a goal worth pursuing, says Ferner of American Eagle.

"What they're going after is a great idea," Ferner says. "I think it's a worthy project and I certainly hope it's successful."

REBECCA VANDERMEULEN is a freelance writer who lives near Downingtown. As she tells friends out of state, that's between the cheesesteaks and the Amish. Send feedback here.

PHOTOS BY 
BRAD BOWER

Roaring Creek Paper Products Manager Bill Brumbaugh inspects the proprietary sample fuel product that would fire boilers generating electricity at their facility

Brumbaugh inspects the proprietary apparatus that turns scrap paper into a viable fuel product

Roaring Creek Paper Products  proprietary apparatus that turns scrap paper into a viable fuel product that would fire boilers generating electricity at their facility

Brumbaugh keeps an eye on the system

 
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