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Pulling back the curtain on cardboard

NIAGARA FALLS – Gigantic rolls of paper emerge from the machine at the Greenpac Mill once every 55 minutes.

The brown spools of liner board have been reborn, each weighing about 70 tons.

Bundles of corrugated cardboard enter the plant when they’re unloaded from Ryder trucks and rail cars, get mixed with water, heated with steam and pressed into thin sheets.

The recycling process ends when the hunks of the material move through the portion of the machine known as the “winder.” Born are paper behemoths about 27 feet wide and nearly 5 feet in diameter.

The lightweight liner board – used as the top and bottom layers in the production of cardboard with a corrugated layer sandwiched in between – gets chopped into five pieces before crawling to the end of the line, where further, customer-specific cutting is awaited.

This process, using 100 percent recycled fibers, is the result of a $470 million investment, finally unveiled Thursday, more than two years since the facility began production.

Plant operators said the facility is one of the few mills like it in the country to produce liner board that is just as strong but weighs less than what is made by its competitors.

“Right now, everyone is looking to reduce packaging, and producing a lightweight product for the packaging, we’re meeting the need of our customer,” said Mario Plourde, president and CEO of Cascades, which owns 59 percent of the facility.

The 234,000-square-foot Greenpac building on Royal Avenue sits across the street from a Praxair facility and adjacent to the Covanta waste-to-energy plant, the latter being the source of the steam used in Greenpac’s production process. Similar plants use boilers to make their own steam.

Greenpac’s closest neighbor is the Norampac mill next door, which is wholly owned by the Quebec-based Cascades, a company with 11,000 employees at 90 sites in North America and Europe. Norampac was the site of a major fire a year ago, when paper bundles stored outdoors burned for days.

Getting to Greenpac’s production line starts with walking up four stories, since the mill sits two stories above the ground. Its main paper-producing machine is so large it was delivered in pieces in 700 truckloads.

The company collects raw materials from municipal recycling facilities across the Northeast, including New York City, as well as from Southern Ontario, including Toronto. It also gets leftover material from customers.

Once the bundled raw material enters the facility, no human touches the product during the fully automated process until it reaches the dock to be shipped out. Its warehouse can store up to 15,000 tons of finished product. The company also will store raw materials and finished product at the former Nabisco warehouse on Buffalo Avenue.

The Royal Avenue facility took 22 months to build, and started production in July 2013. The plant employs 135 people who work in four 12-hour shifts. It’s a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year operation.

The plant, with an annual capacity of 540,000 tons, gets shut down for about 18 to 20 hours every six weeks for maintenance, said plant manager Murray Hewitt. It started making a specialty product, known as Greenpac XP, earlier this year. In August, Greenpac XP was about 66 percent of the facility’s output.

Along with Cascades, the facility is a partnership with the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, Jamestown Container and Containerboard Partners.

Cascades also operates Cascades Recovery in Buffalo, an operation that collects raw materials for its mills.

The facility received an incentive package from the state, including low-cost hydropower and tax credits.

email: abesecker@buffnews.com